Dealing with People Problems: 3 Ways to Win

I was meeting with an executive recently. A team of his was struggling, due to a manager with a history of instability, anger, and capricious decision-making.

After he described the issues to me, he realized he now needed to get involved. And he said, “After I met with the team, I was so angry for a while. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I have to spend so much time dealing with people problems instead of the real job I’m supposed to be doing?'”

Exactly. Whether you’re leading multiple teams or supervising just one person, this probably resonates.

No one told you when you signed on to be a manager that you were going to have to try your hand at being a psychologist. I’ll bet your job description didn’t say anything about spending 80% of your time dealing with “people problems,” and then the other 20% doing your “real job.”

But that’s the reality in many management jobs today. Even if you’re an individual contributor, you’re most likely going to encounter “people problems” that will frustrate you and hinder your performance.

So, what to do? Here are 3 principles to help you (and the people you work with!) win at people problems.

1. Admit you’ve been a “people problem” to establish empathy. First, you need to recognize that you are (or at least have been at some point) a “people problem” for someone else—if you’re human that is. You probably didn’t set out to be someone else’s problem. I highly doubt your team members did either. Wrapping your head around this fact is the first step toward empathy. And empathy is the first step toward any constructive engagement with people who are struggling.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How might they see things? Why? How might they feel? Have you ever felt that way? How can you use your experiences to relate to the person in a way that helps them hear what you think they need to hear?

For you skeptics out there, the fastest way to a loyal, passionate employee is through their heart. And that starts with empathy.

2. Shift your mindset to see that people problems are great opportunities. Every person problem is an opportunity. I can hear many of you saying, like the minions in Despicable Me: “WHAAAAAT?”

Yep, that’s right: people problems are always opportunities to assess what’s really going on in your employees and therefore in your overall culture.

Would you rather not know the REALITY? Okay, I get that it’s not pleasant to face problems like this, but if you don’t know the reality of the situation for your people or your organization, you definitely won’t be able to deal with it.

There’s a growing chorus of experience and research that suggests that organizational health is one of the primary strategic advantages in contemporary business. If that’s true (and I believe it is), then people problems are your access point to discover the reality of your culture and transform it.

In addition, dealing with people problems is an opportunity to have a positive impact on people by showing that you genuinely care. When there are problems, conflicts, and misunderstandings, you have more direct access to people’s gut level expectations (relationship filters or schemas) for how relationships work. And this provides the opportunity for you to have a powerful positive impact on your people at a very personal level. This is intrinsically valuable apart from strategic business goals.

3. Know your role, and partner with the right people to solve the problem. You can’t do this by yourself. You need the support of colleagues and teammates to carry the load. Even if you’re good at dealing with interpersonal conflict and developing people, it will likely overwhelm you if you get too far into the weeds.

You need some baseline competencies in relating and resolving people problems. But sometimes their sheer volume, and at other times their great depth, can tank you.

You need to figure out what your role should be, fulfill that role, and find the right people to do the rest. In general, it will be helpful to empathize with and encourage your people, but also expect a little more out of them. You need to outline a path forward and make the expectations clear. But you don’t need to be the one to provide direct help with each aspect of the development process. Some people may need a self-guided reflective process, while others may need coaching or therapy. You bring in people with all kinds of expertise to handle certain issues more quickly and adeptly than you can. Why wouldn’t you so the same in developing your people? Maybe because it’s easier to avoid the problems because after all, “this shouldn’t be happening,” right? If you’re stuck here, then go back to number 2 above.

I would encourage you to think seriously about your role and write it down. Make it one of your goals to focus on your best contribution in addressing people problems, and then let others focus on theirs. If you put these 3 principles to work, you’ll be on your way to winning with people problems.   

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