When is a Problem Not a Problem?

You need to know!

Coach yourself on problem solving too!

Problems are everywhere, and we like to discuss them.  We are all riddled with problems.  And it’s getting worse is it not?  Or is it?  Think of two problems you are experiencing at work right now.

Here are some examples that I hear:  We are short staffed.  My co-worker is not working as hard as I am.  There is a lot of anxiety right now in my team. Morale is down.  We could be working more collaboratively in or company.  My leader has no vision.  We don’t have a strategic plan.  Turnover is too high.  Employee retention is too low.

Are these problems?  We would say absolutely yes!

A problem is by definition, a deviation or gap.  It means something not to standard or expectations.

Sometimes we see something that we perceive as negative (in our heads) and we label it a problem, but is it?

If an employee is not following a process or procedure it’s a problem right?  But what is the problem?  Is there a quality problem because they’re not following the process?  Or does it bother us because they’re not following the rules, even when they have an effective outcome?  The outcome is the important element here, that is what constitutes a potential problem.

Short staffed is another example.  I could be down 1 or 2 employees but still manage the workload by distributing the work differently, reprioritizing, or saying “no” to lower priority projects.  Not having full staff is not necessarily a problem (stated in this way).  But it could be if you said:

  • “We have x hours of work to do within the team.”
  • “We have x hours of people power available in the team.”
  • Presumably less than the workload. This is a gap and highlights a problem.

By stating the problems in this way, we can open the door to how to solve the problem that may or may not involve adding staff.

So why is this even important?  Because our thoughts generate emotions.  And because these thoughts are negative, they will generate negative emotions.

Negative emotions tend to generate actions that are less productive.  And those actions contribute to our lack of results.

It means we spend more time focusing on negative thoughts rather than constructive problem solving.

And what’s so important to understand is, we consider these thoughts a fact.  We believe our brains.  Our brain offers us something negative and we readily accept it.

Morale is down.  We feel anxious. Or maybe guilty or inadequate, like we need to fix it, to change or improve it.

And sometimes we think things are problems, but we have little control over solving them.

Like the perception that my co-worker is not working as hard as I am.  Several problems with this statement, well we really don’t know if it’s true.  Is it a fact or an opinion?  And secondly what is the problem?  Does that person’s work affect us?  Or do we resent them because we feel this is unfair?  We can go talk to the person (which most of us would not do, because to what end?) or we could talk to our boss.

At the end of they day, is this a problem we believe we can or should solve?  Does it matter and is it worth the mental energy we are expending on it?  How is this thought serving us?  Is there value to it?

And I’m certainly not saying to ignore problems.  It’s important to be solving problems, improving the work environment, and work practices.  I 100% believe that.

At the same time, I believe that we characterize a lot of our negative thoughts as problems.  And then those problems bother us, we stew on them.  They affect our mood; they create stress and anxiety and they prevent us from solving more pressing problems.

Here are some considerations for thinking about our problems in a way that fosters active problem solving.

Consider the following with your previously identified problems:

  1. Is this a negative thought your brain if offering you, or a problem to be solved?
    • Is it valuable to use your brain energy on the issue?
    • Example: “There is anxiety in my team.” This may be true.  And it may be a function of the world we live in right now.  Can you solve this problem?  Or do you accept it and try to be as empathetic as you can to alleviate anxiety.  There may be no concrete solution.
  2. What is the “gap” between the current and the “gold standard” and/or best practice?
    • Example: “We could be working more collaboratively in our company.”  What does that mean and how do you know, and what is the real gap?
    • Industry standard for employee turnover = x, our company = y
    • Workload is x, current time available from team = y
  3. What are the facts in the situation? Do you have data to support your thoughts?
    • Make sure you are stating facts, not expressing assumptions or opinions.
    • Find data or evidence.
  4. What are the consequences of this gap not being closed and/or addressed (i.e., does it matter)?
    • “We need a strategic plan.” Why?  What is currently happening/not happening that requires or necessitates a plan?
    • “My manager doesn’t have a vision for our team?” What challenges does this actually pose for the team long and short term?
  5. How can you frame this problem in a way that you can identify multiple options for solving it? (i.e., get out of the black/white thinking mindset)
  • “We are short staffed.” = we need to hire more people
  • “We need a strategic plan.” = have a plan

We need to be good role models for problem solving and stress management.  Our brains will constantly give us negative thoughts.  And often we see these as problems.  Soon we have 3452 problems to be solved.  This is not true.  And it causes us and those around us anxiety.

Let’s think about problems that require our focus and attention.  And solve those.  Let the other thoughts be.  You have permission to let them go.