Let’s add a new chapter to our column dedicated to ethical leaders and talk about problem solving, i.e. the process which leads from a problem to its solution. In this context I will refer to an exceptional leader: Martin Luther King. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he states that a constructive nonviolent tension is necessary for growth: just like a new life making its space in its mother’s womb, or a grain seed sprouting from the ground. In the same way companies, as evolving ecosystems, need changes and modifications in order to improve. Here are some considerations about how leaders deal with internal tensions.
Photo Luca Zanon by UnSplash
Leaders “serve” their companies and employees
Martin Luther King used to introduce himself by saying “I have the honour to serve as President …” identifying a leader as someone at the service of a group. Very often “bosses” have to perform a dual task:
- they need to achieve good results – therefore being specialists in planning, organization and control
- and they also have to guide and motivate their teams. In order to carry out this second task they need to become experts in managing relationships.
Solving the team’s problems is certainly a quick and effective way to assert one’s leadership, in fact often managers describe their role as “dealing with troubles”. However is this the only skill that managers need to master?
Facilitators vs Problem Solvers
When we have to face a problem there are two possible ways we can deal with it:
either we try and solve it ourselves or we involve our team in the search for the best possible solution. The second approach is more productive and highlights the role of a real leader. However it does require trust in other people and delegation skills – which are not so common! It can be difficult to choose between delegating tasks to our employees – thus taking the responsibility for their work – or stepping in directly, with the risk of devaluing their skills.
We could be tempted to ignore the problem in the vain hope that it might sort itself out. However in the long run this approach might prove counterproductive: it is important to kill the “monster” when it’s still small.
An attack strategy should be planned together, considering two different kinds of problems: those that can be solved autonomously by our employees and those which instead require our direct intervention.
When it’s the employee’s problem
This type of difficulty results from problems in daily activities, relationships with colleagues or private lives – i.e. it starts within a private sphere which is not directly connected with the management. Managers are not involved immediately, which is good, although – unless it is solved in time – the problem might end up affecting the whole team. Very often the employee who is in trouble sends cryptic signals, so as not to make it a big thing, receive criticism or “disturb” the boss. Leaders who want to “anticipate” solutions therefore have to sharpen their senses: all kinds of snorts, silences, nervous attitudes and general dissatisfied mood will have to alert their sixth sense. Our advice is to use expressions that encourage dialogue, such as “do you feel like talking?”, “I’m listening”.
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Managers who have a complicated relationship with time should bear in mind that listening to their employees is the best way to optimize their workflow. Helping solve a problem at the initial stage will avoid having to deal with a bigger one further on.
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When it’s the leader’s problem
In this case the manager has to intervene directly to solve the problem, either because the employees can’t take action (they are not authorized, don’t have the expertise or necessary skills) or because they haven’t realized they are faced with a problem, or that they themselves are causing it. For example if someone in the team is “regularly” late, doesn’t take his/her responsibilities or makes mistakes, the leader has to find a way to inform him/her and stimulate a change. Reproaching someone is never easy, but again “taking no notice” is not advisable: when the situation eventually becomes exasperating and the leader takes action, the employee might be surprised to be addressed aggressively.
Remember that change cannot be forced solely through official authority: in order to achieve true and effective evolution we need to use something more than just our “ranks”. A successful technique is that of win win, which leads to shared solutions based on common aims and values.
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Whatever the difficulties we are experiencing, we should bear in mind that the more we are willing to share the solution with our team, the more we will strengthen the internal dynamics and obtain better efficiency and stronger leadership.
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We should consider the role of a leader with spirit of service. As another great personality of our time said,
If we want to deliver to future generations an improved environmental, economic, cultural and social patrimony, which we inherited, we are called to assume the responsibility of working for the globalization of solidarity … as a moral approach, an expression of attention to others in all their legitimate needs.
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