Dealing with problems is part of everyday life, but for leaders it’s a moment which can be of enormous importance to your leadership, your organisation and the team around you. But here’s the thing: the problem is never the problem.  It’s always the reaction to the problem that’s the real problem.

However bad the issue may seem at the time, it’s how you respond to it – what you say and do and how you encourage others to behave – that can turn a problem into a crisis. As we’ve seen over the past week with the fuel situation in the UK, the problem (BP announcing that they had to close a few petrol stations due to a temporary shortage of tanker drivers) has not been the problem.  The media and politicians’ reaction to the announcement, the talk of fuel shortages and panic buying, and the fear triggered among consumers is the real problem.

For leaders, the most important thing when dealing with problems is to recognise the difference between responding and reacting. When I was mentored by George Pransky he talked to me about ‘thoughts-per-minute’ or tpm. In reaction mode our tpm speed is on turbocharge and it stops us from thinking clearly. Dealing with problems requires us to lower our tpm and move into response mode, taking our time to give proper consideration to possible ways forward. As we discussed in another blog recently, it’s time to slow down to speed up.

Here’s my guide to dealing with problems, and ensuring that your reaction doesn’t become the problem:

  1. Stop and don’t do anything. Unless life is at immediate risk, there are few problems that have to be dealt with instantly, so take a breath and reduce your tpm speed. Give yourself some space to think clearly and assess the issue before you take action.
  2. Most problems involve other people too and it’s vital that you understand their perspective. Listen to them without prejudice and be openminded about what they tell you (don’t make up your mind first).
  3. When assessing the situation, remember the importance of intention. As Stephen Covey observed in TheSpeed of Trust, we judge others by their behaviour yet we judge ourselves by our intentions. Are you judging others before considering their intentions?
  4. When dealing with problems, always focus on the outcome you want to achieve and the best way to get there. Put your efforts into what you can change rather than getting caught up in recriminations of the past.
  5. Ask yourself: ‘If I slept on it, would my decision be different tomorrow?’. Even better, if you can, sleep on it!

Aside from panicking, our other natural reactions when dealing with problems are to sweep them under the carpet or find someone else to blame. Neither of these behaviours is helpful and will more than likely make the problem worse.

The very best way to solve a problem is collectively. This requires honesty about what has happened and a willingness to collaborate with others to achieve a positive outcome. We see the success of this approach every day when facilitating After Action Reviews with our clients, often in very challenging circumstances. But in every single case, positive change and incredible learning comes out of the experience. You can find out more about AAR here.

Don’t let dealing with problems derail your leadership. If you need support, please get in touch.

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