Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Six Rules for Solving Workplace Problems

Volume: March 2014


By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com

Gerald is a seasoned leader who manages 16 professionals. He has two team members who are supervisors, so he has some management support. Like so many teams, 20% of Gerald’s people are performance superstars. About 70% of the team meets the expectations of their job. The remaining 10%, however, are problem-children. Sometimes their performance is sub-standard. Other times their behavior is disruptive. The matrix organization that Gerald’s team is a part of is vibrant and growing, and experiencing rapid change. While the organizational change that is occurring holds many positives, it is not without hiccups along the way. In other words, the workplace in which Gerald leads is fast-paced, complicated, achievement-oriented, and fraught with problems (from time-to-time).


At one point in his career, Gerald used to shrug his shoulders when faced with problems. In fact, one of the first questions he would ask was “Who screwed up this time?” While there was some levity to Gerald’s comment, it also set the tone for a witch hunt. It is common for leaders to seek to identify the person or group who caused a problem in the workplace. Often times, a better course of action is to engage in a problem-solving process. Over the years, Gerald created six rules for solving workplace problems.

  1. Keep calm and carry on. Everyone messes up once in a while. Sometimes people need a free pass, while other times progressive discipline is required. Do not start a witch hunt when faced with a problem situation. Remain as calm as possible and seek to find the root cause of the issue.

  3. Practice self-control. This really pertains to the first item, however, it deserves to be highlighted. Before Gerald was a leader he had the luxury of jumping to conclusions and engaging in finger-pointing. Well, a funny thing happened along the way to great leadership. Gerald lost all sorts of “rights.” Gerald read a great piece on leadership that Colin Powell wrote a dozen years ago. Powell stated that leaders lose the right to be one of the crowd, and to slam their door, and to choose favorites, etc. As Gerald experienced the process of losing these rights, he actually elevated his level of self-control. Gerald believes strongly that when a problem sends a workgroup into chaos it is because the leader of the group does not possess sufficient self-control.  

  5. Be conversational not interrogational. When Gerald was a newer leader and a problem would occur, he would turn into a fact-finding machine and start firing questions: “What,” “How,” “Why?” While all of Gerald’s questions were open-ended in nature, his tone of voice was often accusatory. As a result, Gerald’s questions would be answered with minimal information because people were anxious for the interrogation to end. Over time, Gerald softened his tone of voice in an effort to come across as more conversational. In addition, he began to start his open-ended questions with phrases such as: “Tell me about,” “Share with me,” and “Help me understand.” Gerald’s conversational approach has delivered significantly better results. Not only from a problem-solving standpoint, but also from a long-term rapport standpoint. Gerald now leaves little wreckage in his wake during the problem-solving process.  

  7. Collaborate don’t conflict. Early in his leadership career, when problems were caused by another area of the company, Gerald would get fired up and embrace a mindset of “Us versus Them.” While this brought short-term satisfaction to Gerald and his team, he learned that this behavior fostered long-term conflict. Invariably Gerald’s team would cause a problem, and other areas of the organization would be quick to jump on their folly. These days, Gerald seeks to collaborate with other areas of the organization. In fact, when Gerald’s team uncovers a problem caused by another area of the company, they reach out and offer to work with their colleagues to resolve the issue. There is no finger-pointing, rather, there is professional communication and collaborative action.

  9. Enhance the process. Years ago, Gerald read an article entitled The Process of Winning. It highlighted how Nick Saban, the football coach of Alabama is focused less on winning and more on processes. Gerald embraced some of the concepts of the article. As a result, after his team experiences and resolves a problem, they examine their process and determine what needs to be enhanced. Gerald has helped his team become process-focused. Not so that they are robotic in the workplace. Rather, so that they can easily self-examine and continually raise their bar of excellence.  

  11. Communicate the culture. It has taken Gerald years to refine his problem-solving best practices. In addition, he is committed to having his entire team embrace a logical, cool-headed means to problem-solving. As such, Gerald seeks to lead by example and to share the expectation that his team will be good problem-solvers. In other words, Gerald strives to make effective problem-solving part of the culture of his organization. While problem-solving can be part of a strategy, Gerald has come to realize that the culture of an organization trumps strategy every day.


Bottom Line: When problems occur in the workplace, emotions are easily stirred. The best leaders are able to maintain self-control during times of crisis. They do not go on witch hunts and they seek to be collaborative with other areas of the organization. Good leaders also ask great questions. In the process, they come across as conversational as opposed to interrogational. Lastly, solid leaders nurture the culture of their organizations. They communicate the importance of level-headed problem-solving, and execute problem-solving in a practical way.   



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