Training Industry


  • How to Solve the Wrong Problem: A Step-By-Step Guide for Leaders

During the implementation of a team process at a large electronics firm, one team was having trouble with a team member who refused to attend team meetings. A number of things were tried to get her to come to the meetings: asking nicely, threatening, begging, incentives, logical arguments of all kinds, etc. But nothing worked. 

The problem, as they defined it, was, “The team member won’t come to the team meetings.” So, all of the proposed solutions were various ways to get her to attend the meeting. After many such unsuccessful attempts, the team’s sponsor (manager) was asked to fire her. The team’s facilitator asked for one last chance. He approached her one day to make a final attempt at changing her mind. This time, however, he asked her what she did instead of attending the meeting. Everyone assumed that she just went to her station and continued her assembly work. Her answer surprised the facilitator. She said, “I go to the bathroom and throw up.” After listening for a while, the facilitator realized that she was avoiding the meetings not because she wasn’t a good “team member” or because she didn’t think the team process was a good idea or because she was lazy, etc. She was so shy that the very idea of having to speak up in front of other people made her physically ill. After realizing what was actually going on, the team came up with several ideas that helped keep her involved with the team and insured that her ideas were included in the team’s decision-making without forcing her to be at the meetings physically. 

The real problem was, “How to keep her involved. How to make sure that she was a contributing member of the team.” Once understood, the solutions were obvious. 

The human resources department at the computer manufacturing company decided that they needed a program to reduce absenteeism. The problem – cut down on absenteeism. The company spent a lot of money, time and energy implementing the new program that included incentives for perfect attendance, clearer statements of attendance policy, coaching of supervisors with chronically absent employees, and so forth. In short, it included all the bells and whistles that you would expect in such a program. At the time the program began, the absenteeism rate was about 3.8 percent. Not great! But, not that bad either. 

In the mean time, a small circuit board factory was implementing a comprehensive team process. Prior to its inception, the factory manager had negotiated an agreement with his senior managers that his factory would be exempt from new corporate programs for the 12-month period during which the new team process was put into action. That meant his factory was exempt from the new “reduce absenteeism” program. Like the rest of the company, his factory’s absenteeism rate was roughly 3.8 percent. The purpose of the team process was to improve productivity and quality of work life. The two-fold problem was mediocre performance (78 percent first-pass yield) and poor morale as measured on a survey. At the end of the year, their yield was over 99 percent and morale had increased substantially. In addition, their absenteeism rate dropped below 1.5 percent – without the “reduce absenteeism” program. So, what was the rate at the mother ship? You guessed it – 3.8 percent. When the human resources department was quizzed about why they insisted on the absenteeism program, they replied, “Not coming to work is an act of defiance. It is disrespectful and impacts our productivity.” So, in other words, the problem was mediocre productivity and poor morale. They “solved” the wrong problem. 

So, why does this happen? What are the behaviors that we sometimes get wrapped up in that lead us down the wrong path? 

Here is a step-by-step guide, sort of an idiot’s guide to solving the wrong problem. Pardon the sarcasm. (Sometimes I just can’t help myself). 

  • Step one. When someone comes to you with a problem make sure you are really busy doing other stuff like texting, checking your email, shredding sensitive documents (This one is especially good because of the loud noise.), preparing a PowerPoint Presentation for an important meeting, etc.
  • Step two. Make sure that you interrupt them before they go on and on. Your time is valuable. Tell them to get right to the point. No “dilly dallying!” After all, this is not a therapy session.
  • Step three. Make some initial assumptions about their intentions, motives, concerns, etc. Use your keen intuitive abilities at this moment to demonstrate how much insight you have. How else do you explain how you rose to such a position of responsibility and power?
  • Step four. Throw out a couple of good solutions. They wouldn’t be coming to you in the first place if they knew how to solve the problem on their own. Being as smart as you are, whatever you suggest is probably better than anything that they could come up with on their own. It is also a way of demonstrating what a caring and thoughtful person you are.
  • Step five. Shake hands and shoo them out of your office. You have a job to do. You don’t have time to waste.
  • Step six. Pat yourself on the back. You should feel good about how well you handled the situation. Just think, if you hadn’t taken such decisive action, they might still be in your office whining about how awful things are. 

Sarcasm aside (Yeah, I know that’s a lot of sarcasm to put aside.), how do you avoid making these kinds of mistakes? I have yet to facilitate a team development, communication or leadership training workshop in which people did not readily admit that they have been guilty of solving the wrong problem on many occasions. As with many such ideas, there are no sure-fire formulas that guarantee that you won’t make the same mistake again. You probably will. But there are some principles that will increase considerably the likelihood that you will identify the root issue early in the problem solving process. 

At the heart of all problem-solving is the need to define a problem clearly. Technical problems often come with a set of reasonable assumptions, checklists, and procedures that help the problem solver avoid going off in a totally wrong direction. People problems, on the other hand, don’t come with predefined protocols. Getting to the heart of people problems requires a different set of skills. More important than anything else, it requires a lot of listening. We live in such a hurry-up, multi-tasking, hyped-up world that taking the time to really listen to someone feels almost quaint. “If you’re upset, just text me.” But, the consequences of such indifference can be debilitating. 

Team members are often reluctant to speak up when they encounter obstacles for many reasons. They may worry that they will be seen as weak. They may believe that raising an issue will be futile. They don’t want to be labeled as a “whiner” or “not a team player.” They may have been told, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” (One of the five things a leader should never say to a team member.) But, whatever the reason, they may not be willing or able to clearly state the true problem. They may begin the conversation on safe ground. Typical reactions are similar to the tongue-in-cheek responses I described above. While I was kidding, those responses are not that far off from what actually happens. 

Even with the best of intentions, we often roadblock our team members and end up “solving” the more superficial problems and overlooking the really important stuff. It’s that other stuff that often gets us into real trouble. It’s hard to be patient. But it is really important. So, what are the steps that help us avoid “jumping to conclusions?” 

  • Pay attention. Show up. When someone shows signs of distress, changes in behavior, unusual nonverbal communication (avoiding eye contact, slumping, fidgeting, pacing), making mistakes, etc., stop what you are doing and give them your undivided attention. That means not checking your emails, sending texts, tweeting, sorting mail or looking at your watch.
  • Invite conversation. Don’t ask pointed questions but do open the door with phrases that show you want to hear what they have to say.
  • Show interest. Nod your head. Use encouraging “grunts” like OK, I see, uh huh, and so forth. (Don’t take this to extremes but a little bit is useful.)
  • Be quiet. Sometimes all you really need to do is shut up until they have said what they need to say.
  • Avoid interrogation. One of the hardest temptations to overcome is the urge to cross-examine. In some ways this seems counter intuitive but it is important to keep in mind that the person asking the questions is the one who is setting the agenda (“Here is what we should be talking about. These are the data that are important.”) and may steer the conversation in the totally wrong direction. Let the person who came to you with the problem calm down and guide the discussion. Be patient (I think I have said that more than once).
  • Avoid disruptive comments. No sarcasm, no judgment, no flattery, no analysis, no advice, no lectures, no preaching, no any of that stuff. Be patient (Did I mention that before?).
  • Actively listen. Demonstrate that you understand the other person’s point of view. Put it into words and let the other person confirm or disconfirm your understanding. This is, of course, a lot harder than I am making it seem. If you are not good at this as many of us aren’t, take a class. Learn how to listen. Learn how to be a better, more active listener. 

There will be plenty of time to show off your razor sharp analytical skills later, once you have actually determined what problem you are working on. One of my favorite quotes comes from a play called, “Rocket Man.” The main character says, “There is nothing more obvious than the solution to someone else’s problem.” Wow! 

So, “Be patient!” (Once more just as a reminder).


Bill Stinnett, Ph.D. is co-author of the book Corporate Madness: How to Change the System When the System Refuses to Change and is a master trainer for Gordon Training International.

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