As a manager, an integral part of your job is to address the issues, problems, and concerns of your staff. Although the three terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference in their meaning on the basis of your relation to them.
A problem is a matter that you care about being resolved, and it generally concerns you and is something you can identify as your own. A concern is a matter that involves others. Though you are not directly affected by it, it is something you care about being solved. Finally, an issue is generally someone else’s problem. It does not actually concern you, but you can recognize why it is considered troublesome. To further illustrate the difference between the three, an example may prove to be useful:
Discussing these matters is never easy. However, it is crucial to do so and to do so effectively. Here are suggestions that can help make their identification and resolution more pleasant and productive:
1. Give the staff member your full attention.
Keep in mind that dealing with staff member’s problems and concerns is your work and not an interruption to your work. Avoid doing other tasks such as taking phone calls or continuing work on your computer and focus on listening to your staff member. Failure to give the staff your undivided attention sends the message that their concerns aren’t relevant to you.
2. Listen to your staff member’s explanation without interrupting.
Unless they are just endlessly rambling on, you should allow your staff members to finish their story. However, if you sense that they are chattering unnecessarily, you can respectfully interject by saying, ‘Let me just stop you for a minute to be sure that I understand.’ After this, summarise what you were able to hear so far.
3. If the problem is unclear, ask, ‘How can I help?’
Sometimes, people simply don’t explain things well. If you find that you have no clue what the issue is, ask your staff. Finding out what they expect from you will make things clearer for both of you.
4. Display understanding, but not necessarily agreement with your staff member.
It is important to be empathic and to show that you understand the problem at hand. However, you have only heard your staff member’s version of the situation so far. Agreeing with them at the onset may, therefore, be hazardous and should be avoided. Instead of saying something like, ‘That’s awful. you must do something about that!’ it’s better to say something like, ‘I can understand why you’d be upset about that.’
5. Remain neutral regarding issues involving others.
You especially want to avoid picking sides when it comes to issues that involve other people. It is unwise to jump into conclusions about others’ behaviours until you have spoken to them about it or learned sufficient details about the situation.
6. Ask questions to get a full picture.
Sometimes, people who are at the height of emotions – especially those who are upset or angry – fail to provide all the relevant details regarding an issue. They tend to be focused on their point of view and may end up excluding all others. It is, therefore, crucial that you try to understand the entire situation before deciding what is to be done.
7. Explain what you will do, then do it.
After discussing a staff member’s concern, there must be an explicit agreement regarding what happens next. There may be actions that you want the staff member to do, such as provide supplementary information or speak directly with a colleague. As the manager, you should be crystal clear about what you can do about the situation and what, if any, your next steps will be.
8. Seek permission to involve other staff members.
If the staff member’s complaint is about a colleague, that person often becomes part of the conversation to resolve the problem. However, you shouldn’t assume that the complaining staff member has considered this. Unless the complaint is a legal issue (see below), you may need to help the staff member realise that they have a choice of either involving the other party or living with the situation.
9. Raise legal issues to the appropriate people immediately.
If the staff member mentions discrimination, financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, threats of personal harm, or other legal issues, you must run to your Legal or Human Resource department. Immediate action is required for legal issues, and delays may create serious problems. Do not attempt to investigate these issues yourself.
10. Set a time for the staff member to get back to you.
The staff member is probably more concerned about this issue than you are. However, this is not an excuse for you to let the issue slip your mind. Their problem is your problem, after all. In order for you to ensure that there is no delay in taking action to address the issue, it’s essential for you to make time for the staff member to get back to you. Ensure that the follow-up is mutually agreed upon by both of you. Moreover, it would help if you set it up in both your calendars to ensure synchronisation in your schedules.
11. Keep information confidential.
Some problems may be so odd or interesting that you are tempted to share them as amusing anecdotes. However, you must bear in mind that people resent sharing personal issues with others who shouldn’t be involved. As the manager, you must keep the details of your staff members’ problems and issues confidential at all costs.
12. Resolve the issue or explain why you are unable to.
Whether or not you can help your staff members solve their problems, you must inform them. Don’t leave them wondering if or when their issues will ever be resolved. If you cannot help them address their problem, make it a point to clearly explain why. Generally speaking, people recognise that managers have limited power too.
13. Arrange a time to follow up (if necessary).
If it’s a situation that will take a while to improve (e.g., an interpersonal conflict with a co-worker), determine when you will be able to touch base with your staff member to see how things are progressing.
14. Don’t reward staff members for complaining.
It is important to address valid concerns. However, some people complain endlessly about everything. After a while, these staff members will just wear you out and use up all your energy. Chronic complainers thrive on attention, so it is crucial that you don’t encourage or reinforce their behaviour by being sympathetic and listening to their rants.
Once you have a clear understanding of the problems from the perspective of the team member, it’s time to help them find a solution. Several processes can be useful here. These include:
Decision Matrix – Upgrading Office Computers
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In coming up with ways to address issues, concerns, and problems within the team, coming to an agreement on what course of action would be adapted is essential. However, this is not so easily achieved. There would be instances when a resolution is unable to be achieved by the team. When this happens, you and your team must prepare to take the necessary actions.
Meeting with your Team
Setting up a formal meeting is an effective way of addressing most any matter – not just issue resolution. Given this, you ought to note the different types of meetings that exist. These are:
Types of Meeting
In planning your meeting, you must first be clear about the type of meeting you ought to have. For the purpose of this topic, you are likely to call for a meeting on decision-making, dispute resolution, or problem-solving/crisis resolution. The type of meeting and its subject matter informs you who needs to participate and what kind of interaction is necessary to accomplish the meeting purpose. It also provides context for the selection of group process techniques.
Steps in the Decision-Making Process
Coming to a decision usually requires several discrete steps (e.g., defining the problem, generating alternatives, and so on). Sometimes, all those steps occur in one meeting. When it comes to major decisions, however, these steps (outlined below) are often sequenced over several meetings.
At every step, different behaviour is required from the participants, so the meeting planner must specify where in the decision-making process this meeting (or this agenda item) is.
Have a clearly defined series of steps that the group uses whenever they make decisions. It doesn’t have to be the one above, so long as it works for the kinds of issues people in your organisation are addressing. What does matter is that it is used frequently enough so that people develop a common language and a common set of expectations for each step in the process. It is recommended that you post these steps in each meeting room so that participants can refer to them at a glance.
Here is a summary of some issues at each step in the decision-making process as well as some useful group process techniques for each step:
1. Define the Problem or Opportunity
The biggest issue with this step is getting people involved. Groups have a knack for skipping problem definition and going straight to thinking about possible solutions. Moreover, groups have the tendency go straight to the solutions they already know how to do (e.g., if your organisation makes widgets, you’ll gravitate towards a solution involving widget).
The problem with this behaviour is that you are likely to come up with an excellent solution for the wrong problem, or you won’t think through the fundamental issues and come up with something that is merely a patch on top of existing patches.
Here are some techniques for helping groups define problems:
2. Generate Alternatives
During this step, the real challenges during this step are to:
For example, If Bill has identified ten ideas, no specific idea should be associated with Bill. This is to avoid others feeling the need to support or oppose the idea simply because it is Bill’s, and they hold certain biases towards or against him.
Most people who work in research and development (R&D) and creativity fields stress that people ought to be in a playful, even joyous, mood to be optimally creative. In fact, some R&D companies even provide water guns, have toys on all the meeting room tables, and encourage food fights – anything to engage people and get them out of being too adult.
A few simpler techniques for generating alternatives merit discussion. These are:
Get people to generate lots of ideas. List all of them on a flipchart or whiteboard. Don’t allow evaluative comments (even positive ones). The creative ideas are likely to emerge once you’ve flushed out the old ideas, so push for quantity.
Work through analogies to get people to identify viable options. You’ll end up with statements like:
‘If our organisation were a biological system, the way we’d solve this problem would be…’
‘If it were a virus, we’d….’
Create fantasy solutions with no rules or ‘givens’ including physical laws like gravity or market realities. You’ll end up with statements like:
‘If I had my druthers, we’d all communicate using ESP. Then, you wouldn’t need…’
After several fantasies, discuss ways to solve the problem as you did in your fantasy solutions while addressing the physical or market realities (i.e., use cell phones instead of Extrasensory Perception (ESP)).
3. Evaluate Alternatives
If you use the techniques mentioned above for generating alternatives, you might have ended up generating so many alternatives you don’t know how to evaluate them efficiently. Sometimes, it is better to put off the evaluation for a later meeting so you can have a work group analyse the alternatives between your meetings.
Here are some techniques for evaluating alternatives during meetings:
4. Select a Course of Action
It is imperative to recognise who is responsible for making any decision. Some decision-makers make decisions based on intuitive ‘Aha’s,’ while others depend on detailed quantitative analysis. Sometimes, it is ‘the boss.’ Sometimes, it’s a decision based on consensus. Sometimes, it may even be a consensus decision unless the group can’t agree, in which case the boss decides. Any of these approaches can work; what doesn’t work is having the groupthink that it is making the decision when the boss is the one who will make it. Expectations must be clear and well-defined.
5. Define the Implementation Plan
This is the stage wherein the group thinks through all the tasks necessary to implement your solution and assigns both responsibilities and deadlines for completion. The implementation plan you come up with is essentially a compilation of all the strategies you have come up with this far. Further, it simplifies your ideas and distributes the work among the members. It is broken down into parts that everyone can easily understand and follow as necessary.
The use of PERT charts would help teams visualise the components of a successful plan. PERT stands for Program Evaluation Review Technique; it simplifies the tasks within a project to enable easier analysis. Likewise, the PERT charts is a management tool that is used to coordinate, schedule, and organise these tasks. To implement this method, the group needs to work on either a large whiteboard or wall to be able to visualise all the parts. One meeting centre even has magnetised pieces of a metal whiteboard, cut in the shape of PERT chart symbols, which will stick to the walls and can also be moved around on the wall.
If you have a SMART Board and digital projector, you can use a flow-chart or project management software application then project it on the whiteboard. Your team can use all the tools from the software application, then download your conclusions into a laptop. Additionally, the Meeting Pro software that comes with your SMART Board also allows you to move items around the board without erasing. It also has a way of recording assignments and deadlines. You can download all this information then send everybody their assignment lists via email.=
6. Establish Mechanisms for Determining Whether or Not Your Approach is Working
The team must establish a way of determining whether its plan is solving the problem with which it started. When you have a defined process for evaluating performance, you can adjust your plan without resorting to the ‘blame game,’ (e.g., trying to pinpoint who’s responsible for a failure). Without such a process, the plan often has to break down entirely before anyone takes action. When this happens, you’re stuck not only with the original problem but also all the bad feelings and ill-will that result from failure.
Working on the Walls
Almost all the techniques described above require recording participants’ comments on flip chart sheets posted on walls or a whiteboard. Some meeting rooms will allow the entire walls of the room to be plastered with papers and used as storyboards. Others are surfaced in the whiteboard. Groups like to ‘think big’ like this.
The only problem is getting the information down from the whiteboard so members can walk away with it. This is the advantage of using digital whiteboards like SMART Board. The other advantage of the digital whiteboards is that you can project a graphic template of a group process template on the board, have the group fill in the blanks, then download both the template and the group’s responses.
If you don’t have a digital whiteboard, think about laying out your whole process on a large continuous sheet of butcher paper, leaving space for the group’s responses. Not only does your butcher-paper template guide the group through the process, but you can fold it up and walk away with it at the end of the meeting.
A major step in resolving issues, concerns, and problems is deciding what course of action ought to be taken. As mentioned in the previous chapter, decision-making done by a team is superior to that done by an individual. In order to reach decisions on a team level, however, a consensus is often necessary.
Consensus is agreement on a particular decision. Reaching a consensus does not mean that everyone feels like the agreed-upon decision is the best. Rather, this means that the team agrees that the decision is ‘the way to go.’ The steps to gain consensus are:
Issue Resolution Strategies
When problems in the workplace arise, there are many ways to approach and address them. Among these, however, eight foolproof strategies will enable you to effectively and efficiently resolve most any issue that emerges.
1. Understand the situation.
The truth is, very few situations turn out to be exactly how they seem at face value or how others present them to you. A key strategy in resolving issues is, therefore, fully understanding the problem and predicament at hand. Before you even try to settle any conflict, it’s best to ensure that you have investigated the issue from all possible angles and considered all sides of the story. This ensures that any decisions made about the issue would be one that was not made lightly or one that favours only one side.
2. Acknowledge the problem.
One primary source of unnecessary conflict is the inability to recognise an issue or realising its existence a little too late. Although something may seem like a negligible issue to you, someone else in your team may regard it as a major problem. It is, therefore, important to always acknowledge that issues affect you differently, and it’s normal to feel frustrated when it comes to dealing with these. Moreover, you must bear in mind that the successful resolution of any issue is based on a key acceptance of the problem at hand.
3. Be patient and take your time.
The adage, ‘Haste makes waste,’ has more truth in it than you realise. When it comes to resolving problems, a key strategy is to employ patience in attentively and carefully evaluating all the information at hand. If you are in a hurry to come up with a resolution, you may end up missing crucial details that may lead you to assess the situation incorrectly. As a result, you may end up making the wrong decision and further worsen the issue.
4. Don’t resort to coercion and intimidation.
Although emotional outbursts and manipulation may temporarily stop the problem, these methods are mere band-aid solutions that do not target the issue at its roots. Because these are not a long-term method, the problem they have ceased will likely resurface in the future. These ineffective strategies will only increase your problems because once the issue emerges once more, you will have to deal with it and the negative feelings that have festered below the surface during the interim. Go for healthy and proactive solutions that don’t hurt others in the process.
5. Focus on the problem, not the individual.
Most people have known at least one ‘problematic individual’ during their work experience. When it comes to issue resolution, however, it is best to avoid pre-conceived attitudes towards individuals. Person X may not be the most agreeable individual, or perhaps Person Y has a personality conflict with your staff member. Either way, this does not mean that they do not have a legitimate concern. As a manager, you must stick to the issue at hand and let go of your personal biases and prejudices. If it, through your thorough analysis, you find that the individual is indeed the problem, then you can focus on investigating them in relation to the issue at hand.
6. Establish guidelines.
A formal meeting between or among concerned individuals is a key strategy in resolving conflict. However, the effectivity of this method relies on pre-established agreements and guidelines. Before conducting any such meeting, parties involved ought to agree to a set of rules that will ensure that the meeting will effectively resolve the problem at hand. Sample guidelines include asking the parties to:
Moreover, it is best to strictly implement these guidelines and inform the parties that a violation of these will result in the dissolution of the meeting.
7. Keep the communication open.
Ultimately, the goal of conflict resolution is to successfully allow all parties involved to settle the problem between or among themselves. As such, a key strategy is to ensure that communication is open for everyone and that no one party is dominating the conversation. Parties must be allowed to express their viewpoint. Along with this, however, you must attempt to facilitate the meeting and serve as the mediator, sharing your perspective and helping them pinpoint the real cause of the conflict at hand.
8. Act decisively.
Once you have carefully gathered information, spoken to all parties involved, and reviewed the circumstances surrounding the issue, it is vital to make your decision. To effectively resolve any issue, you must act decisively. It does not benefit anyone to leave the matter in limbo, and taking too long in making a decision could also damage your credibility and reputation. Although not everyone will agree with your choice, at least it will signify where you stand.
Feedback is an integral part of developing and facilitating team cohesion. Whether you are a subordinate or a superior, learning how to effectively provide, request, and accept feedback is an invaluable skill you ought to learn.
To learn more about the process as well as find some practical tips and techniques in doing so, you may read the guide provided by the ACT Government. The Art of Feedback: Giving, Seeking and Receiving Feedback