Managing the Problem-Solver

Problem-solvers are awesome to have around, aren’t they? They fix problems, whether relational, social, financial, structural, infrastructural or procedural. Problem fixing is an important and valuable skill and many people are rewarded at work for this ability.

Problem-solvers may also be really good at prospectively identifying problems and their solutions. These folks are incredible to have on project planning teams as they help to ensure the success of the project.

Clifton StrengthsFinders call this strength Restorative. A useful strength, for sure. Like all strengths, Restorative can also create difficulties when not used wisely.

Folks with Restorative strength may struggle with staying positive while identifying problems.   If overly focused on problems while ignoring the opportunities, the problem-solver may be perceived as negative or a nay-sayer. A successful and ambitious project benefits from both dreamers and problem-solvers; one without the other becomes either completely unrealistic or unable to move forward. Problem-solvers should aim to allow the group to maintain their energy towards working towards the shared vision but work to mitigate the obstacles that can submarine an otherwise good project.

That problem-solving talent can also backfire when aimed at people. Restorative folk often will focus on what someone is doing wrong or their personal flaws rather than what they are doing right or their strengths. If the problem-solver has poor self-awareness, then that criticism could have impair the development or maintenance of trust and intimacy in relationships.

Balancing positivity and problem spotting in projects and others can be difficult. What’s even more difficult is excessive problem spotting in oneself. That inward critique may be endless and relentless and make the outward criticism seem tame in comparison.

The good news about this strength is that, though it’s easy to fall into the down-side of the strength, the strength can also be used to find a solution. I mean, who better to solve the problem than someone with the Restorative strength? Apply said-talent to said-poor balance issues. Ask yourself, how can I identify and solve problems while being supportive, affirming and positive? How can I apply that remedy to myself? What is the right balance of affirming, celebrating, dreaming versus fixing and repairing? How do I integrate this into my focus, perspective and actions each day? What impact do I have when I over-focus on fixing? What other strengths can I use to offset my Restorative tendency that is more positive and generative?

We don’t have to overly rely on a couple of strengths. We can make full use of the things that we do naturally. Empathy, positivity, harmony, organizing, bringing out the best in others or a project, relationship-building, and creativity strengths all potentially could be used to find the optimum balance for this valuable but often challenging strength.

When You Screw Up

“To err is human, to forgive divine”

Yes, both parts of that statement are really really true. But to me, there’s something missing.   It has to do with taking responsibility for our mistakes.

We all make mistakes, but how we respond to the mistake matters. A mistake could be viewed as a temporary setback and localized to that particular incident or types of incidents. This mindset is characteristic of optimists who are  happier (not surprising) and more successful (maybe surprising) compared to pessimists. Pessimists, in contrast, will view mistakes or setbacks as permanent and pervasive. They tend to get discouraged after a mistake and don’t try to make changes because they view those mistakes as permanent flaws rather than something that can be changed.

Regardless of how one views a mistake, the response to the mistake is critically important. One who is resilient will learn from the mistake and grow, while one who is not might wallow in self-pity, martyrdom, anxiety or depression.

A resilient and optimistic person may even turn the mistake into an opportunity. I’ve made many many mistakes in my life, like many folk. However, my better self can sometimes rise to the occasion and respond with integrity, courage and wisdom and perhaps even gain the respect of someone who could’ve become a critic.

What do you do when you make a mistake? Be honest with yourself.

  • Cry
  • Complain
  • Blame yourself
  • Feel bad about yourself or become devasted
  • Hide/avoid or ignore the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Blame the person that was injured or adversely impacted
  • Forget the whole thing and move on
  • Apologize endlessly until the injured party is uncomfortable and has to comfort or reassure you
  • Explain and justify your actions
  • Offer a succinct and sincere apology
  • Acknowledge the feelings of the other
  • Do whatever it takes to make it right, going above and beyond if possible

I wish I could say that I always do the bottom 3, but it’s not always the case. However, I do believe I do the right thing sooner and more frequently than I did in the past, though excuses or blame may happen at least fleetingly in my head initially.   Those types of reactions are natural, but most of them are either unhelpful or actually counterproductive. In the moment, they’re psychologically because we can avoid feeling responsible or guilty.  But if we can muster the courage to admit our share of the responsibility and then act accordingly, it is an opportunity to grow both ourself and the relationship.

So perhaps we should recoin that phrase to: “To err is human, to take responsibility divine.”  Only then, can we actually forgive ourselves for being human.

The Problem Person and Negative Group-Think

Scapegoat

Scapegoat

Yes, it is so delicious to complain about someone else, especially when it becomes group entertainment. The person you just love to hate is so much fun to berate and denigrate (haha!). She is so awful to us, how can she act this way, doesn’t she know….?

It’s not just at work. Often in a family dynamic, one child or sibling is identified as the problem. Life would be so much easier if they would just see it our way and try to get along.

Chances are, you’re reading this blog because part of you senses that there’s something wrong with that approach of negative group-think. First, such an approach is not constructive, entertaining and satisfying though it may be. Second, it is harmful for the person who is the subject of that criticism. Third, negative group-think entrenches the dysfunctional dynamic rather than encouraging positive change.

In family dynamics, a problem child is usually the one acting upon the feelings that the family can’t express. For example, no one may be willing to vocalize the family’s fears about the chronic shortage of money, and so that anxiety is expressed by a child by acting out. Now the family can focus on the problem child because it’s easier to deal with him through blame and criticism rather than dealing with the elephant in the room.

I’m not sure whether the same type of dynamic exists at work. I can say though that the black sheep in one organization is sometimes the hero in another. Workplace culture mismatch is often the culprit rather than a character, talent or work ethic deficit. It may be true that a colleague just doesn’t fit in. That does not make her a bad person or incompetent.

I’m not suggesting we condone poor behavior or lack of performance. I’m suggesting that we quit vilifying others when trying to solve problems or improve performance.   For example, superstar employee though I am :), I would have a great deal of difficulty doing my job effectively if I felt that everyone was complaining about me and not supportive of what I’m trying to accomplish.  Who can be successful under such circumstances? The group is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by Blaming-the-Victim. Now who’s the bad guy? Granted, letting go of the need to criticize or blame will not necessarily make someone perform, but at least you will not be contributing to the problem.

The Arbinger Institute suggests that we treat others’ needs, wants and desires as important as our own, whether we’re praising or reprimanding, rewarding or punishing. A colleague is either performing or he isn’t. Ascribing a failure of performance to any metric of motivation, talent, intelligence, integrity or intent is speculative, counter-productive and unfair. Give that person the benefit of the doubt and every opportunity to succeed. If they still can’t cut the muster then take action. If you can avoid getting emotional about the situation, you are more likely to avoid becoming the problem or contributing to the problem. After all, I would hate it if people began to criticize you.

Your Attention, Your Reality

Someone told me recently that they have a complete grasp on reality and they call it as they see it. The inference is that others don’t have an accurate perception of reality. And thus the beginning of endless disagreements and arguments.

In fact, there are thousands of things that we can focus on at any given moment, including what we see, smell, touch, hear or taste. We can also focus on something that’s in our mind, past, present or future. So at any given point in time, what we choose to focus on is a choice. If I’m focusing on how loudly the clock is ticking, someone else watching TV may say the clock is not loud at all. We have different realities, and we’re both right.

We also have different realities when it comes to interpreting others’ behavior. I sometimes get this weird habit of noticing how wet or dry someone’s mouth is while talking. I’m not proud of it. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it does happen, I have a hard time not focusing on it. Just like if I said, “Don’t think of white polar bears.” What are you going to do?

Likewise, if I get fixated on someone else’s positive qualities, say how smart or clever they are, then I will just marvel at how wonderful and talented they are. I will have positive emotion (admiration, inspiration, enjoyment) and will share that emotion with others vicariously.

Or I can choose to get fixated on some negative quality. It might be that they incorrectly conjugate their verbs, have their bra strap showing, or that they’re somewhat clueless to social cues.   I might even decide they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. Confirmation bias says that I will notice cues that support my theory  and ignore those that refute it.  Pretty soon, I’m digging deeper and deeper into my negative and critical belief to where pretty soon I’ve decided that person is just not a worthy human being. Contempt, disgust, resentment abound. Now what am I sharing?

Others may be completely unaware of this person’s shortcomings. Well, I have a firm grasp on reality. They do not.

So here I am, frustrated and contemptuous of someone else’s narcissism, smug in the knowledge that I know reality but others don’t. How’m I doin’?

Does this sound familiar? I’ll bet we’ve all been here at one time or another.

It’s a natural tendency. But we don’t have to be a slave to our tendencies. Instead, beware of what you notice and focus on in others. That belief and focus defines you, not them. When you find yourself focusing on someone else’s shortcomings, just catch yourself in the act and switch your perspective. Find something to admire and love in that person.  Now your reality includes people that are good, talented, kind and loving.   And that’s a much nicer world to live in.

Jumping to Conclusions

It’s oh so easy and deliciously fun to jump to conclusions about others’ motivations, especially when we can feel indignant and justified while making others out to be petty, small-minded, or selfish. We can decide they’re a jerk, an a**hole, a biyotch, or (favorite expletive) and feel superior to them.

It’s great fun until someone else does it to us.

But that’s different, we say.   We’re right.

What I’ve learned is that everyone has their perspective which is just as valid as our own, regardless of whether we understand it or agree with it.  Failure to at least try to understand someone else’s perspective can be damaging to morale and relationships and undermine a group’s effectiveness.

I have to admit that some people are particularly difficult to understand and it may be tempting to just write them off as narcissists, selfish or small-minded. And I may not always be wrong when doing so. After all, even a broken clock is right twice per day. So for all of those times (since I can’t ever really know when I’m right) when I find myself indulging in negativity, complaining, or self-justification here’s what I try to do.

First, I must acknowledge that I form some judgment or assumption when I form a conclusion.   There may be a belief attached to that. For example, if my friend is in the habit of offering something to me that she knows she cannot deliver, I may decide she’s manipulative (a judgment/assumption/conclusion). But if I examine my underlying belief (it’s her job be honest with me so that I feel safe or valued), I can see what the real issue is and have a conversation with her and/or make a decision about what her friendship is worth to me.

Second, I can examine my own role and potential hypocrisy in this situation. It’s easy to cast blame on others, but much harder to take ownership of one’s own contribution.   A great starting point for this self-reflection is as follows: if I’m accusing her of manipulation, there is probably some element of manipulation that I myself am employing such as getting mad if she doesn’t do what I want.

I also may be hiding a belief from myself that is potentially unflattering. For example, my underlying belief in the above scenario might really be that my affection for her is predicated on her doing something for me.  I may be very unwilling to admit this to myself and instead rationalize the conflict to say it’s about honesty.   I can test my assumption by asking myself whether her company alone is sufficient for me to continue our friendship. Or perhaps I pressure her to do things for me that she’s not comfortable doing? Is this her way of getting me off her back?

Finally, I can also do an exercise where I envision other reasonable explanations for her behavior. She might simply be an unrealistic and overly optimistic planner who is sincere in her offers at the time.   She might have every intention of making that promise work, but later find she’s too busy or overwhelmed.   She might be misusing one of her strengths if she’s tired or stressed out. In other words, I am now looking at my friend from the point of view of her humanity, not her failures.

These exercises are not necessarily designed to get someone else off the hook after behaving poorly. They are intended, however, to help one get a new perspective on what was previously a very one-sided internal dialogue.

There are multiple benefits to making this effort in such situations. For example, trying to see the conflict from another’s perspective will smooth the way when discussing the issue with them. You’re less likely to make her defensive if you’re not leading with an accusatory tone. Also, it’s much easier to forgive someone when you consider or realize that you have contributed an equal or significant part to the problem. And that forgiveness, as Suzanne Somers once said, is a “gift you give yourself”. That gift to yourself is peace of mind and the power to retain your equanimity and positive emotion.

Therefore, engaging in such exercises means that you can potentially be rewarded psychologically and emotionally for your efforts. Like other skills, these actions get easier with practice, as do the concomitant benefits. So what do you have to lose besides your premature conclusions and resentment?

Protecting Our Children

No matter how disappointing the behavior, I believe that everyone is doing their best.   It’s easy to judge someone else and say what they should or should not be doing.  And we may even be right.  But seeing someone else’s faults is completely different than seeing our own.

I used to be pretty critical and judgmental (and I still can go there pretty quickly): one of those ‘my sh** doesn’t stink’ kind of people.  But then I learned and accepted the fact that the qualities we tend to hate in others are the faults we hate in ourselves.  So if I say you’re judgmental and lazy, it’s really my own judgement and laziness that I hate.

So I’ve learned to shut up to avoid adding hypocrite to the list.

Doing our best notwithstanding, we have a particular responsibility toward our kids.  Our hypocrisy and judgment might roll off the back of an adult who may emerge relatively unscathed or unfazed by our criticism.  It’s completely different with children.  Those messages come loud and clear to kids, and those judgments get etched into their psyches.  In this manner, I believe our children inherit our unresolved issues and carry them into the next generation.  Until someone breaks the cycle of denial and passivity, those issues will get handed down through the generations.

Our parents came to the US to give their daughters a better life.  And they did.  We had every educational opportunity possible.  We never wanted for food, shelter or clothing.  For our children, I want to give them a better emotional and psychological start by dealing with my issues so they don’t have to.  They’ll have their education, of course, but that’s not enough for me.  I want them to have peace, tranquility and a feeling of being loved and accepted just as they are.

Not everyone is ready for this journey; I get that.  But please consider that the possibility of your hidden, unresolved issues unwittingly bleeding over to your kids is real.   We take great pains to lock our doors at night and wash our hands to keep our families safe.  You wouldn’t want to expose your family to measles, flu or MRSA, which are mostly pretty treatable and temporary.  Infecting them with a feeling they are not loved or worthy could last a lifetime and even multiple generations.

I know it’s scary to look inside and possibly find you come up short in some ways.  Know that we all do, as you probably know by looking at others.  You know those around you are struggling to be good and do good.  You forgive them (I hope) for their humanity.  Consider granting yourself that same kindness and doing the same for yourself; you’ll find your flaws are no different (better or worse) than anyone else’s.  You’ve seen it all. You know what it’s like.  So there’s nothing in there that you haven’t seen or know how to solve.  You’ve been telling others how to fix these things your whole life.  You might be surprised it’s a huge relief to deal with that nagging problem once and for all.  The irony is that once you accept your own faults, it becomes easier to accept the faults of others.

So don’t be afraid.  You have everything to gain and nothing more to lose by being brave.   As my man William Shakespeare says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Snap Judgments

I don’t consider myself a judgmental person, but we’re all hard-wired to be hypocritical. The hypocrisy I’ve noticed in myself is in first impressions.  I already know that I’m not a good judge of character.  It’s hard to ‘judge’ someone’s character when you tend to look for only their best qualities.  Turns out, I’m not good at accurate negative assessments either.

In the moment, it seems there are some characteristics that are worse than others, at least in terms of my gut reaction to them.  In my mind, I know that they’re all great when applied properly.  In my gut, there are a couple that just rankle me.  And thus my snap judgment.

I sort of even pride myself on having a good radar for this behavior.  I have these folks pegged right away.

Except for when I don’t.

I know where it comes from.  The behaviors that annoy me are those that made me feel invisible as a child.  So as an adult, I get a visceral reaction – even though objectively there’s nothing wrong with the behavior – and there’s instant dislike.  From a schema perspective, my schema makes me hyper-sensitive to certain behaviors that will go unnoticed by others. From a StrengthsFinder perspective, such qualities are probably strength themes that may not be optimally used.  For example, when I misuse my command strength, I can come across as either a bully instead of a leader.  Every one of us struggles with that balance, so there’s nothing wrong with that either.

On a couple of recent occasions I have found that I’ve been wrong about that negative assessment.  I don’t often feel grateful to be proven wrong, but in these situations, being wrong has been a big relief and an opportunity to get to know another amazing person.

Upon further reflection, I believe I will always be wrong when making a snap (negative) judgment.    If I can push aside my visceral reaction, I will again fall back on my tendency to find the best parts of that person even if that annoying quality is present.  If I cannot, then I will not be open to getting to know another beautiful spirit.

This shortcoming of mine – finding the best in others –  is actually one of my best features. It’s not a perfect feature, but I think to the degree that I can improve will enable me to feel even more connected to those around me.  I don’t need artificial barriers that are of my own creation.  There are enough of those out there already, I don’t need to add one more of my own.