Leadership: how can we solve problems so everyone wins?

Problem solving
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Good leadership isn’t about imposing your worldview on those you manage; often it’s about being able to resolve conflict effectively. Here are some tips for more positive problem solving to ensure everyone feels like a winner.

When there’s a problem that needs solving in a working environment, the temptation is for people to pick a side and stick to it. A good leader has to be able to cope with conflict and move past that in order to get to the root cause and address it effectively.

Start by using your ears, not your mouth

The first stage of successful conflict management is about identifying needs. If the listening phase does not lead to a resolution, it will be necessary to negotiate and problem solve.

The listening is likely to identify a variety of unmet needs. List these and decide on one to work with, as it is unwise to work with several issues at once.

If people don’t take time to explore needs, they may deal with wants or symptoms instead of with the root cause. This is a form of patching things up and leads to continued frustration and the re-emergence of the conflict in the future.

Brainstorm solutions

List several ways to meet both sets of needs on the issue. Aim to get five to ten alternatives. At this stage it is best not to criticise, judge or evaluate the suggestions – this means not listing any ‘yes, buts…’.

Encourage wacky or ‘out there’ ideas, anything to keep the creativity flowing. Evaluation of these ideas will come in the decision making phase.

Decide a way forward

Look for what you have in common. Talk about what you agree about. Create ‘yeses’ rather than ‘yes buts’.

Go through the list and mark anything that both people are open to, as this will narrow the options. Discuss the plusses and the minuses of each remaining option. As you talk you are likely to have more choices than was originally thought.

Arguing is a poor persuasion technique as you will be arguing from your own logic and value system. People move for what is important to them, not what is important to you. 

Use currencies in which you both can trade, i.e. a win for both of you. You may, in your give and take approach, offer things which are easy for you to give and easy for the other person.

An ‘elegant’ currency is one which is low cost for one person and is of high value to another. Aim for minimal cost and maximum gain.

Agree a plan of action

Once you’ve discussed it, it’s best if the plan is written down. Then check whether both people understand and agree to it.

Be specific about who will do what, how and by when. Set a review date to see how it is working out. Being specific prevents confusion.

More choices

Beware of the ‘tit for tat’ scenario, which only leads to stalemate and a lose/lose situation.

If you want the other party to listen to you, it’s important to look for areas of agreement. To meet your needs, first listen to them, look for agreement and seek to meet their needs.

While their behaviour is likely to follow yours, there are no guarantees when it comes to people, but generally behaviour breeds behaviour. 

How to disagree

If you just counter with a different viewpoint without first validating what the other person has said, you may lose rapport and create a ‘you versus me’ situation.

Although some people like the directness and don’t have an issue with counter arguing, you are more likely to maintain rapport if you:

  1. Validate the idea
  2. Express your reservations
  3. Seek alternatives and problem solve

Here are some examples:

  • ‘What I like about your idea is that the report will be shorter’ (validate)
  • ‘What concerns me is that the key sales figures will not be emphasised’ (reservations)
  • ‘What can we do so the key sales information is there without making the report longer?’ (problem-solve)    

Arguing is a poor persuasion technique

Responses that start with 'yes, but...' often indicate argument mode. Arguing is more likely to polarise than to persuade. It will encourage people to dig their heels in and defend their own positions.

Contrary to popular belief, not getting what you want can often be a wonderful stroke of luck.

In this situation, people get locked into their own view and are less open to persuasion. Even if you ‘win’ the argument, you are likely to have lost their hearts and minds and there will be no sense of collaboration or understanding. Arguing creates a win/lose situation, whereas problem solving presents it as a win/win.

Arguing is a poor persuasion technique as you will be arguing from your own logic and value system. People move for what is important to them, not what is important to you. Make the links to the other person’s values, if you want to influence and persuade.

Respond rather than react

Here are some examples of responding positively to concerns and objections. These open questions allow you to reframe the resistance and keep rapport:

  • Instead of ‘it will never work’: ‘what do you dislike about it?’
  • Reframe ‘my way is better’ as ‘what makes that seem the best option?’
  • Replace ‘it’s impossible’ with ‘what would it take to make it possible?’
  • Throw out ‘I can’t’ in favour of ‘what difference would it make if you could?’
  • Rather than ‘you can’t do that’, ask ‘what would happen if we did?’     

Rules for constructive controversy

Contrary to popular belief, not getting what you want can often be a wonderful stroke of luck.

Here are some guidelines for keeping the discussion free of blame, accusation and judgement:

  • Be critical of ideas but not the person.
  • Listen to understand, not to win.
  • Recognise all viewpoints as valid.
  • Be open to new perspectives.

It may be useful to put yourself into the shoes of an observer, someone with no stake in the issue, someone who understands that both sides have valid concerns and can give an objective perspective on moving forward.

As this person, what would you say to each of the individuals involved? How would you comment on their negotiating style? What would be your suggestions for moving the situation forward?

Finally, remember that a lot of effective problem solving is about knowing how to negotiate. There are four main steps to this:

  1. Listen actively: accept the other party’s position and show you understand.
     
  2. Give a little: look for what you can offer them that meets their needs. Make sure you listen to their objections and concerns and incorporate them into the agreement you make. If there’s been an error on their side, look for ways to help them save face.
     
  3. Ask for what you need: express your own concerns and needs and be prepared to give and take.
     
  4. Make it a fair deal: try to balance the agreement to ensure maximum wins for both sides.

Ultimately, being a good leader isn’t just about getting your way all the time, it’s about winning hearts and minds, too. Being proactive and positive about problem solving is the first step in achieving this.

Interested in learning more? Read What to do about team conflict.

About Shay McConnon

About Shay McConnon

Shay McConnon is a psychologist, an author of 18 books and the CEO of McConnon International which specialises in creating solutions that engage staff, promote ownership and create collaborative working relationships. www.shaymcconnon.com

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