Are you the problem?

the problem is you.jpg

A few months ago, I was coaching an employee on a work challenge. She felt a few coworkers kept trying to pass work to her that wasn’t her responsibility. She was frustrated and the stress showed. Multiple sessions in a row, she would list in detail the things that others did that frustrated her. As she did, her voice would raise, her skin would flush, and you could see the anger build. To her, the others were clearly wrong in their actions and she kept replaying why in her mind. She was stuck and unable to move past this but wasn’t sure how.

One day, I listened as she began again down the list of how unfair it was that these people kept trying to pass their work to her. When she paused, I asked her “Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” She looked at me confused. I said “In every problem you have a choice. To be a part of what is causing the problem. Or to be a part of the solution. Which do you want?”

That question jolted her out of being a victim. She realized she was contributing by the problem and had to change her mindset. She chose solution, and we shifted the dialogue to talking about how she could change the conversation and ultimately the outcome. For months, she had been stuck being a part of the problem. She was convinced she was right, others were wrong and should just know and fix things. She felt things were being done to her and didn’t address them. She contributed to the problem by not saying or doing anything, yet repeatedly getting upset about the situation. Her reaction is common. People often feel that things are done to them, and they should be stopped because they are unfair. We dig in because we believe we are right, and others are wrong. In each situation, we are either a part of the problem: causing or contributing to things, or we are part of the solution to make it better.

Most people go to work each day intending to do a good job. People believe their actions are with the best of intent. Most act rationally to how they understand and perceive their situation. The challenge comes when people differ in their perspectives of what is best for a given situation. People always assume positive intent of their own actions and are often skeptical of others. It is difficult to step back to recognize the intent is good even with differing perspectives. As I facilitate different team workshops, coaching, and interventions, I often find debate, disagreement, and passionate conflict around the “how” things will get done. What I try to help individuals see in almost all cases is they agree on the desired outcome. They just differ in how to get there. My role then becomes helping them build empathy for one another’s perspectives, experiences, and interest in solving the problem.

There is a great TED talk by William Ury, who wrote the classic book “Getting to Yes.” He talks about the idea of there being three sides in a problem. The first two sides are the known ones: us vs. them. The third side is typically someone that can remind people what is at stake. This can be an outsider, or someone involved in the problem who steps back and “goes to the balcony.” The balcony, he describes, is a metaphor for a place of perspective. If you picture a balcony in a theater, you get the holistic perspective of the venue. Not just the limited view of the orchestra or mezzanine. By going to the balcony, you allow yourself to pause, see the whole picture and help bring others there to be a part of the solution.

That is exactly what I tried to do with the woman I was coaching and when facilitating. I listen as the third side for what is being said, and perhaps most importantly, what is not being said. I’m listening for how I can help others change their perspective and choose to be a part of the solution. By helping people build empathy and climb to the balcony to see a broader perspective, it becomes easier to solve the problem together.

The next time you encounter a frustrating situation at work, ask yourself: do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?