All generalizations are false, including this one.
Mark Twain inter alia
Day in, day out, we are faced with many problems at work. Whether we are Start-up Entrepreneurs or Managers in MNCs, much of what we do is solving problems directly or through others. We feel that we are paid to answer questions and make problems go away.
This pattern often comes up in the coaching room. I wrote about it a couple of years ago on LinkedIn. There is a tension between the General and the Detail and what we expect of ourselves as leaders. As it is an evergreen theme, I think it's worth an update.
Sometimes they are big problems that could have a noticeable, strategic and lasting impact on our business. We know a big problem when we see it: a systemic threat, a need for a new product, an objection from a major prospect etc. They are easy to recognize and we have a familiar language and tool-kits to manage them: the project, the strategy review, the business plan, the budget cycle or funding round etc.
These problems need resources to resolve, where we must prioritize. We can read a lot about how to manage them and recommendations for prioritization in the business blogs. In summary: Focus on the Important before the Urgent to build long-term value. It sounds easy, but many managers I work with are conflicted when I invite them to consider leaving the Important & Urgent quadrant to their staff and centering their attention on the Important & Not Urgent.
But this does not mean to ignore the details of our interactions. What can we gain from exploring the details in our communications?
I’m equally interested in the many small problems. Each day, we encounter a mass of low-grade problems: questions, concerns, problems, complaints etc., in emails, calls or face-to-face interactions. They are annoying or irritating. They are not systemic. None of them will change our world, if left unaddressed, but, overall, they can have a persistent, noticeable impact on the quality of what we do, the motivation of our staff and the satisfaction of our customers.
Some leaders deal with the stream of small problems as a test of their resilience, as a fact of life to be tolerated, as a challenge of will or to be defeated by positive thinking. We are even counseled “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson and others. I disagree.
Usually, these micro-problems do not need resources, projects, meetings, documentation or much else to crack them. They can be resolved in the conversation where they arise, and they can be solved by the person who brings them, not you!
It takes some attention to detail, a disciplined use of language, a sense of ownership and the motivation to do it. For example, when you hear:
“The presentations today were really bad”
Do you want to let this comment go unchallenged and spread around the office? ‘No they weren’t’ or ‘Be positive’ are possible responses but not very helpful. They may make you feel better but they will not change your colleague’s point of view. What will it cost you to ignore this comment, or give a holding response?
You can bring this kind of general statement into perspective by challenging the details. You can explore each generalization in turn for specificity, relevance, proportion, boundaries or validity:
‘Which presentations? All of them?’
‘Was it only today, or are they always like that? When have they been different?’
‘Were they all bad? What does bad mean in this case? What makes a presentation bad? What were the good points? Why do you say “really”?’
In this way, you are challenging the generalization of one comment about one event to all; heading off the catastrophizing language that could turn the molehill into an immovable mountain. You are not arguing with your colleague, disagreeing or pulling rank. You are triggering reflection about the specific instance. That will take the colleague back into the moment, hopefully to see it for what it is. Often the reflection will cause a reappraisal by the person who made the comment, and they will offer a revised comment.
Try it yourself. How would you help your colleagues explore these problem statements? Each one has at least three dimensions to challenge:
“Security of the system is all important.”
“She just needs to improve her influencing skills.”
“The management irritates me.”
“We cannot accept another change request.”
Coaches use this technique to help their clients to reframe a problem. All the substantives in the above examples are limiting in some way. A coach may challenge…
“All important” as compared to what?
What specific “Influencing Skills”?
Who exactly is “The management”
Who could “accept another change request.”?
This approach helps to clarify and break down the issue into discrete manageable components. Also, it can defuse the emotional loading of the statement. We use black and white, catastrophic, stereotyping language to express our feelings directly like “irritates me” or indirectly by dramatizing: “all important” and “cannot accept” – passive-aggressive language. Such statements are conducting more emotion than information about the challenge. Another agenda probably lies under the surface of these statements. If the emotions are not themselves the problem, then getting to the specifics of the issue can delink the emotions from the problem solving, though the emotions will have to be addressed. More about that in another post.
This technique can be transformative when you add it to your management tool-kit because:
- You can resolve problems and misunderstandings early.
- You can reduce the gossip and negative talk about people and work in hand.
- Over time, if you practice this consistently, your colleagues will expect your attention to detail, so they will prepare better. They will think ahead and anticipate your challenge.
- And so they will learn to do it themselves.
Why not experiment with “sweating the small stuff” for a couple of weeks and see what it does for your business?