One of your managers has two employees who argue often about which one of them is responsible for certain tasks assigned to their area…not just once, but a few times over a span of months. Other employees are complaining.
The manager has reported to you that he has had to intervene more than once to solve this, and finally sent them to a conflict management seminar last month. Yet, you just received a report that the two employees are at it again.
You’ve summoned the manager, and will ask him to terminate the two immediately.
But – are they really the problem?
Sometimes the conflict or challenge we think we have identified is not the real problem at all.
Problem-solving is a critical skill that does not receive enough attention in most executive development programs. Yet this one area is the one that most often holds professionals back from being more effective.
Most often, poor problem-solving can be due to just one critical step that is overlooked – getting to the root cause.
You see, the two employees aren’t the root cause of the problem. And because they are not, the problem will arise again and again, no matter who replaces them.
A classic problem-solving model will look something like this:
- Identify the problem.
- Determine the root cause of the problem.
- Come up with possible solutions.
- Select what you feel is the best solution.
- Implement the solution.
- Evaluate the outcome.
Many people will jump over the second step, reacting to what they see as the problem, but which is actually just a symptom of the root cause. This means that any solution they attempt may stop the immediate crisis, but it won’t really fix things.
So how do we get to the bottom of things?
A simple “5 Whys” technique will solve quite a bit.
The 5 Whys technique was developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within the Toyota Motor Corporation at a critical stage in its manufacturing development. It’s a technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.
Let’s see how it works with the example of the two employees:
Two employees continue to create a disturbance in the workplace (the problem).
They continue to argue with one another.
They do not agree on who will perform which tasks in their area.
Each thinks he knows who should perform which task, and their opinions differ.
Their roles and duties are not well-defined so as to clarify who owns what responsibilities within the area.
The manager has not taken the time to review roles and responsibilities and to clarify these with his reports.
Now, we could carry this further and add a couple of “Whys,” and this would show that the manager’s boss has not taken the time to investigate why the manager cannot stop the problem.
You see, even though the employees are adults and they are responsible for how they conduct themselves, the root cause of the conflict, unless remedied, will tend to fuel more conflict, no matter who replaces these employees.
So before you react to a perceived problem next time, try the “Five Whys” exercise. I’m interested to see what insights this might provide for you!