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As leaders, it’s easy to feel frustrated when we sense people ‘just aren’t doing what they should be’.

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But assuming people are the problem when work is delayed or incomplete often leads to poor feedback and rarely solves the issue at hand. Instead, we can reframe these problems away from our teammates and enlist them to solve the issues collaboratively.

What is the problem if it isn’t human?

Let’s take a hypothetical situation: a team member we’re leading is unable to deliver work on the agreed timeline and isn’t providing updates to let us know the work will be delayed.

Let’s play out framing this as a people problem: we schedule a meeting with our teammate with the intention of providing feedback that they are poor communicators. Firstly, it’s important to understand that there’s an important power dynamic at play created by our hierarchy. The person we’re talking to is already in a vulnerable position. Their walls will be up in some capacity. We might’ve worked hard on building trust with them, allowing for conversations that are less defensive, but that trust will quickly be broken when we criticize their very being. As Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, reminds us: ‘Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.’

When we call someone a ‘poor communicator’, we’re assigning them a negative identity. We’re blaming them for the issue and creating an environment where folks feel unsafe to be who they are. Even if we say they have poor communication skills, instead of being poor communicators, we’re still giving character-based feedback. We’re denying the reality that they likely have sound and deeply-rooted reasons for behaving the way they do.

As we blame and alienate our teammate, we also likely miss out on hearing very important context that would help us solve the actual problem at hand. And although it may seem that everything would be resolved should the person simply be a certain way, asking someone to change who they are isn’t a fair ask.

With this in mind, let’s come back to the issue: what is the problem if it isn’t human?

The real problem isn’t that the person isn’t giving updates: it’s that we don’t have the information we need to do our work at the required level of quality. It’s not their actions, but the impact of those actions.

Here we’re reframing ‘you’re not communicating’ into ‘I don’t have the information I need to complete my work’. This technique is similar to using 'I' versus 'you' statements. Our reframing also does something critical for the rest of the conversation: it sets the scene around fixing the issue collaboratively.

Sitting on the same side of the table

So far, we’ve separated the problem at hand from the person we’re talking to. We’re still left with a problem to solve, but now we can enroll our conversation partner into finding a solution. There are a few additional things we can do to foster collaboration.

One of the most important resources in providing feedback comes to us from Brené Brown, research professor and author studying leadership, vulnerability and shame, in the form of The Engaged Feedback Checklist. The first and second points on that checklist create the mental structure necessary for collaborative problem-solving: ‘I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you’, and ‘I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you)’.

While conversations might be happening virtually, the proverbial table is still present. Visualizing sitting next to each other and looking at the problem laid out on the table together can be a powerful way to move away from seeing the person across from us as the problem.

As we start looking at the problem as a team, we can approach it from a place of curiosity; we still don’t have all the information, so we can’t be sure about what we are trying to solve. In The Advice Trap, Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of the training and development company Box of Crayons, reminds us of that all we have is our experience:

‘There are reasons why your ideas are often not that great. To start with, you don’t have the full picture. You’ve got a few facts, a delightful collection of baggage, a robust serving of opinion, and an ocean of assumption. You think you understand what’s happening. Your brain is designed to find patterns and make connections that reassure you that you know what’s going on. Trust me, you don’t. What you’ve got is one part truth and about six parts conjecture.’

We can tell our teammate how we see the problem and ask them what it looks like from their perspective. By sharing our experience and inviting them to do the same, we can start aligning on the problem, reduce conjecture, and create engagement. If we come out of that conversation with a clearer understanding of the problem at hand and no solution, we’re still better off than charging straight into the wrong issue by framing the person as the problem. As Einstein famously said, '‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’

By moving away from framing the issue as a personal problem, we’re opening ourselves up to truly understanding the challenges at hand.

Building our collaboration muscle

To recap, our goal is to transform our need to solve a people problem into a flag for us to stop, recenter around curiosity, and take a seat on the same side of the table. Like any mindfulness work, this is a practice. Integrating a collaborative approach to problem-solving in conversations is no easy task. In fact, we are often fighting our own conflicting needs and baggage. 

The first reflex we can start building is to recognize when we think that the person we’re talking to is the problem. This is a good sign we need a reality check. We can notice what happens to us when we begin to have thoughts such as ‘I just need them to do…’ or ‘if this was me, this wouldn’t be a problem.’ It could be a familiar sense of frustration, a fear of confrontation, an ego boost in putting someone down. The feelings and physical sensations are ours to discover and name, but there are a few things we can do to get there:

1. Reflect on meetings where the conversation was focused on a human problem

As we build the collaboration muscle, we likely won’t be in a place where we can identify when we’re turning the situation into a person problem as it’s happening. Looking back at the times when we didn’t show up how we wanted to will help us identify those situations early.

2. Prepare for conversations ahead of time

We can start by singling out the meetings where the behavior we want to change is most likely to happen. If we’re in a management position, we tend to be the ones creating the meetings to discuss problems, so we can use that to our advantage. Before entering the meeting, we can ground ourselves in our experience of the issue, remind ourselves that we are at the step of identifying the problem at hand, and visualize sitting next to the person to tackle it together.

3. Practice and reflect

Some conversations will go the way we hope, others will not. Just as important as reflecting on what went wrong, we should take the time to recognize what went well and acknowledge the difference our approach made. We are striving to bring our awareness as close as possible to the moment we slip to the wrong side of the table. As we practice, we will notice these moments more consistently, without having to prepare for them. When we do slip, however, let’s remind ourselves that we are rewiring our brains and that process that takes time and patience.

Reflections

Approaching situations with curiosity and collaboration is a skill that’s useful in all areas of life. This article is written for leaders, but the ideas can be used across any hierarchical line or relationship. When we recognize that the only path to collaboration is through partnership, we can evaluate our actions against our commitment to working together.

While these skills can be used by anyone, as leaders, the responsibility for creating a safe environment falls on our side of the power dynamic. Building trust and partnership must be an intentional exercise we undertake. A truly collaborative solution can only flourish when all participants in the conversation feel safe to be themselves. This applies as much to us as to the people we are talking with.

This framework is meant as a mental exercise to help imagine more collaborative and human problem-solving. Work, especially as a leader, is intrinsically human. If we take the time to recall the moments where we felt like we, as a person, were being framed as the problem, we can use that as a source of empathy to connect with others and create conversations we might not believe were possible; conversations rooted in love for those we work with.