In this series of articles addressing the problem-solving strategies of effective leaders, I have defined several types of problems that one might encounter, especially in the workplace. I’ve also pointed out that many people confuse finding a solution with problem solving when the truth is that successful problem solving must precede an effective long-term solution. I have stated that truly effective leaders possess a skill that can be developed—nuanced noticing. This is the ability to observe small changes in behaviors and outcomes that signal potential or existing problems. Leaders who observe the working environment, the behavior of employees, business indicators, and then encourage others to notice and bring problems forward, are the leaders who, more often than not, excel. The second of five steps to effective problem solving is defining the problem.

Defining the problem is about figuring out what the real problem is. It’s easy to think that the outcome produced by the problem is the problem. For example, “our turnover is too high,” seems like the problem so the solution is “keep hiring and investing a lot of money in training” or “pay people more.” In fact, that turnover is just the most salient ill effect of a deeper issue. The likely deeper issue is that the work conditions are so non-optimal that any other opportunity is an improvement for 60 percent of the workforce. That’s a big problem! Now is the time to identify the root cause of the problem rather than just the symptom or later effect.  A wise leader will ask “what is it about those work conditions that are so non-optimal?” Maybe the job is harder, the physical environment is worse, OR the manager is less positive than what they might encounter in a different job or with a different company. Those become the things to change for future success rather than just continuing to hire into a non-retaining environment that has little to do with the pay structure.

In business these are called root causes, but in the behavioral world we call them functional determinants. They are the reasons why the problem occurred rather than the impact of the problem that you are seeing head on. In defining the problem, the critically different thing that really good problem solvers do might be called digging to the right depth. Good problem solvers are adept at figuring out how far down they need to track to find those functional determinants—the source of that problem. Doing so puts them in a position to figure out the bigger root cause of the original problem and possibly many other problems including those that have not yet surfaced.

A human resources person, for example, might think the company’s turnover is higher than the national average. The default problem is that the company needs to decrease turnover. The HR person doesn’t really know why turnover is so high, or what the functional determinants are, but decides to pay people more and to post a positive reinforcement board. The approach here is to use default strategies that probably won’t hurt even if they don’t get to the real issue. What are the chances these default strategies will work? That is hard to predict because this approach might work if the strategies have something to do with the actual cause of the turnover problem and pay differential was the real problem. If that was not the problem, you will just end up paying people more every day until they leave the company and you create new problems with the bottom line—more wasted time and money.

It’s easy to think that a person’s behavior is the problem: this person comes to work late or these people leave early. However, that behavior occurs in an environmental context. The behavior is preceded by an antecedent and followed by a consequence that leads to that behavior seeming like a good option or maybe the only option that will make things better. Figuring out the likely antecedent or the prior consequences that people have encountered for their specific behavior is a lot more important than focusing on the behavior.

Here’s an example. You’ve got a team of people and they feel like their boss doesn’t listen to them because, in the past, bringing up even a small issue resulted in negative consequences. He tells them they are complainers and argues with them rather than listening and exploring possible solutions.  So if seeking help is punished and the problem comes up again, the consequences have been such that they keep their mouths shut about problems.  The antecedent to this situation is something ongoing that is bad so the person knows there is a problem and change is needed.  However, the consequences to reporting the problem in the past have also been negative and haven’t resulted in solutions.  The only available behaviors or strategies that seem like they would work are hide the problem, try something to solve the problem myself even if I don’t have any good ideas, or leave the problem behind by getting a different job and a boss who might want to help me.

The problem isn’t that this person left their job or that this person started hiding problems. That’s the behavior that’s occurring now. The real problem is that the supervisor or manager in that context punishes people bringing problems forward and that supervisor is going to do the same thing with the future employees that are hired to replace the ones that just left. It’s going to be more of the same and new problems are going to arise because new problems will be hidden.

Problem solving is enhanced when we focus more on the antecedents and the consequences that are occurring than the behaviors. Define the real problem and tailor your solution based on that root cause. Leaders who do this make a much bigger impact with their problem-solving efforts. Think of the Five Why’s strategy that Toyota put forward. You’ve always got to ask at least five questions beginning with “Why . . .?”  The first thing that you think is the problem is probably not the real problem. You have to look deeper; then look deeper again.

Ask more questions and ask them about the right things. Don’t just dwell on the basic question, “Why does this person not do it right?” but seek out the specific antecedents and/or consequences of the environment that lead to this person thinking that bad options are their only options. 

The real issue is how to figure out those causes. Some of the things that great leaders and great problem solvers do are create environments where people feel that they can speak up in a respectful way with all levels of the hierarchy as potential listeners. I don’t have to only talk to the person right above me or complain, complain, complain to my peers. I can go up two or even four levels and talk about an issue without fear of repercussion, because the environment is one where people know how to positively report concerns without attacking others. That is, if you wish something were a little better in your work environment, you can make that suggestion in a positive manner:  “It sure would be great if there were different lighting in our workspace, because I get headaches by the end of the day” rather than “I hate this place! It’s like a cave and I can’t get anything done!”

Create those environments where people feel like their bosses will listen to them and teach them to talk in a way that gets people to listen. The best leaders, as problem solvers, get all sides of the story. They look for multiple sources of information to give them a better idea of the deeper down cause of a problem. They’ve stopped looking at the behavior as the problem and they start asking those questions that give them the full picture of the causes of the problem. Great leaders define the real problem by investigating the environment in which the problem occurs and collecting data and information to help understand the real problem before taking action.

The next section in this series will discuss the third step of problem solving: generating possible options.