Sometimes People Need A Problem More Than They Want A Solution

You’re working on a project and the same pain point comes up again for the millionth time. It’s been discussed, debated, assigned, owned, – everything but solved for, and here it is again, slowing you down. It’s a hard truth, but sometimes people need a problem more than they want a solution. Here’s what we can do about it.

Leadership researcher and consultant Randal Stutman says this is a surprisingly common problem.* The first step is recognizing the pattern. It includes a problem that keeps getting brought up but never resolved, all while the “owner” of the problem gets to signal their ongoing commitment to it. Without having to do the work, the act of putting it on their to-do list ensures nobody else can touch it.**

Once we see the pattern, we can recognize exactly how the problem is being used as a defensive maneuver. Sometimes it’s a power flex (“It’s just not MY priority right now”), other times it’s an insecurity (“They can’t know I don’t know how to do this”). The key is realizing there’s ego on the line, not just the problem itself.

If we’re the guilty party, we have to see the pain it’s causing and get the necessary help to solve the actual problem. We also need to be sensitive about why we created the situation so we don’t repeat it.***

If someone else is doing it to us, we have to find another way to engineer progress around what surely is a sensitive ego. This can require some creative planning to keep their ego safe post-resolution. This isn’t always possible, making awareness of this pattern of behavior extra valuable. If something really can’t be done, we may have to walk away.

It’s important to believe every problem has a solution. It’s the job of a leader, by title or function, to solve those problems. When the problem is psychological, leadership is about seeing the broader pattern as what it is, not what it ought to be, and finding a way to move the whole group forward.****

*via The Knowledge Project Podcast, ep. 96, “Randall Stutman: The Essence of Leadership.”

**see also: bottlenecks

***see also: impostor syndrome

***see also: you can’t derive an “is” from an “ought”

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