We all have issues in our lives, professional and personal, that seem to just persist on and on and never get resolved. How do we manage the “no-solution” situations? What do they look like?
- An employee who you like, who tries really hard, is not succeeding in their role.
- A staffing problem that just doesn’t seem to resolve – resulting in overtaxing valued employees who have to fill in.
- A process that gets stuck over and over again in the same place delaying necessary action.
- A position that was fulfilling that has changed because of new leadership.
You’ve tried so many interventions! But nothing seems to work. You are dissatisfied, folks around you are dissatisfied and yet the problem just won’t go away.
How do we approach these sticking points? My partner-in-blog, Jill Bachman, reflected, “think of getting stuck in the physical world, like lost on a hike, and the first thing to do is stop, stop the struggle, breathe and take stock.” So, the first thing to do is to step back from the situation and reflect on what is going on. We tend to do this on our commute, in the shower, doing physical labor (sweeping the front porch, gardening) or when we are away from the office at a concert, on vacation, on a hike.
Reflect on what is really going on.
- How would you describe the situation?
- What values and beliefs are at play?
- What role do you have in sustaining the current “stuck” place?
- What influence or decision-making power do you have?
Noushin Bayat, one of Thunderbird’s coaches, suggests separating fact from fiction – identifying what we know (observable facts) from the story we are creating about the situation (fiction, beliefs that may or may not be true) and challenging ourselves to consider other possible stories (other possible beliefs?).
For example, with the employee we like who tries really hard but does not appear to be making progress, what do I know?
- I like the employee.
- I care about the person as an individual.
- They are trying.
- We’ve tried to help.
- They are not succeeding.
What values are in play?
- Supervisory responsibility and accountability
- Organizational success
What role do I have in sustaining the situation? (How do these ideas relate to the fact/fiction dichotomy? What other ways of seeing things are there?)
- Taking responsibility for their lack of success.
- If I provided better direction, guidance or coaching…
- If I advocated for the employee better…
- Valuing loyalty and caring over organizational success. I don’t want to be heartless!
- Believing things will get better time after time after time…
- Not wanting to hurt this person that I like…
- I am accepting substandard performance and hoping it will get better.
What decision-making power or influence do I have?
- I can help the individual assess their own ability to be successful.
- I need to be clear about expectations and goals for success.
- I have the power to terminate employment.
So how do I decide I have tried hard enough, and they have tried hard enough? How do I know when it is time to act? How could the following questions help?
- What will happen if I continue doing what I am doing?
- How will I know when it is time to act? (Chip and Dan Heath describe this as establishing a trip-wire.) It can be a particular event that would have to happen – e.g. a specific failed project, or it could be a lack of progress by a certain date. If nothing changes in three more months, I have to act.
- What would I tell my best friend if they had this problem?
- If I were leaving tomorrow and someone was taking my place, what would I advise them about this situation?
- Are there possible solutions outside of the binary: continuing the way things are or termination?
What do you think the answers would be in the above situations? What will happen if action isn’t taken? What would you advise someone else to do? Are there more solutions than the simple binary?
Some of us can do this analysis on our own. Many of us work better with a thinking partner. Who do you have in your world that you can be vulnerable with? Who will listen to you? Who will ask you the hard questions? Who is far enough away from the situation not to be stuck inside it?
In Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without, Tom Rath describes how important it is to have people in our lives who support us, encourage and motivate us and help us navigate decisions. He references Gallup research that stresses the importance of having “a best friend at work.” Having someone we trust, can confide in and be vulnerable with at work increases our engagement, satisfaction and success enormously. Rath identifies various roles friends play in our lives and emphasizes that no one person can do it all. Our vital friends can be at work and at home, colleagues, friends, family, coaches, mentors and sponsors.
When we get stuck, it is not uncommon to turn inward instead of reaching out. By being aware of our vital friends (what I consider my “kitchen cabinet), we have the human resources to help us get unstuck.
So, how do we get unstuck?
- Step back and reflect
- Ask yourself challenging questions
- About your role in the situation
- About what you would tell someone else in the same situation
- Separate fact from fiction
- Use a thinking partner
And first and foremost, recognize that you are stuck and need to get unstuck.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – CG Jung
 Heath, Dan and Chip. (2013) Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Currency, New York.
 Rath, Tom. (2006) Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. Gallup Press.