I want to work with people who flag problems and then offer up solutions. Whistle blowers, tattletale, and rumormongers are a dime a dozen.
If you took one-tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out… Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier. – Randy Pausch
It’s certainly important to identify a problem. If we are perfectly content with the status quo, we don’t need to take any action. Once the issue has been clearly defined, however, our thoughts should turn to addressing it. Typically, concerns are easy to spot. But when you’re part of the creative process, in a room buzzing with fresh ideas, don’t be the man or woman who says, “Yeah, but here’s the problem,” without the follow of, “and here’s how we will overcome.”
One way to ensure that we have a strong process in place is to first see opportunity for growth in issues. From philosopher Karl Popper:
“All life is problem solving.” I’ve often contended that the best leaders are the best problem solvers. They have the patience to step back and see the problem at-hand through broadened observation; circular vision. They see around, beneath and beyond the problem itself. They see well-beyond the obvious. The most effective leaders approach problems through a lens of opportunity.
Merely identifying problems is a stagnant mindset. The message is, “this is hard, so let’s not do anything about it.” I’m not suggesting that we blindly rush into action without considering risks or hurdles, but solving problems instead of merely listing them is the only chance for improvement.
Nobody said this would be easy. Particularly if we’ve been in challenging environments and around especially challenging people, we’ve all become accustomed to the default setting of judgment. That doesn’t make us bad or unsavory, it just makes us human. In a courtroom, a judge will come to a conclusion, but it’s always accompanied by a course of action. In our day to day lives, we tend to only tackle the first part of the equation.
In my home, my older son Chase has developed a habit of frying eggs late at night. I love this. Most teenagers grab a carton of Rocky Road, this one crushes local eggs. Can’t complain. Upon waking in the morning, I’ve been finding his pan, in the sink, covered in dried egg yolks and redolent of chili powder (the kid gets it). He and I select the same pan, so when I go to cook, I am perpetually washing first. Suppose I approach him with, “Chase, you’re always leaving a dirty pan in the sink. It’s annoying,” then walk away. Feels like an attack. I’ve identified a problem, but I’ve explained nothing, taught nothing. Instead, I say the same thing, but follow with a course of action.
“Chase, after I cook eggs, I put a little water back in the pan, heat it to a boil quickly, then wipe it down and put it back on the stove so it’s clean for the next time. Let’s get in the habit of doing that for each other.”
My core belief is that if you’re complaining about something for more than three minutes, two minutes ago you should have done something about it.
Note that none of this is suggesting you are required to be blindly optimistic about every circumstance you face. When coupled with action, even irritation and annoyance can drive progress. Without looking for solutions, however, we become pessimistic fatalists, staying passive in the face of problems. Often, people push back or criticize out of defensiveness. They feel they should have taken action earlier, but didn’t out of fear or laziness. They have something to prove; if no one else can solve the problem, then they were right not to try. The more we sink into defensive mindsets, the less able we are to ask questions and improve.
As you stated, there is a difference between “questioning” and “complaining” – Most of the time, people will complain out of apathy or other things. When we step outside the box of the current process or problem, we discover our true thinking process and are able to create strong problem solving skills. Instead of throwing up our hands and passing the problem off to another person, step back and think about all of the possible solutions. Most of the time, people want a band-aid (quick and easy) for a huge problem, which will eventually break again – but if we take our time and research all potential solutions and the pros/cons of each, we start to really develop things.
Human nature probably places us on both the solving side and the solving-impediment side at different times depending on circumstances. This piece needs to be one I review often to help me overcome Mr. Opposition Guy and to not be MOG. Your references and analogies in this post really advanced it past just the conceptual. Always appreciate your transparency and devotion to your principles.
Three little rules I try to live by popped into my mind…1) Be part of the solution, not part of the problem 2) Start with the mindset that you’re positive there IS a solution, and 3) Recognize there is always a best way to handle a problem (shoot for the win-win scenario) – it usually just takes a couple of mindful seconds to see it.
Stephanie St Amour says
Can’t express how much we all benefit from your consistent, insightful comments. Thank you, Bill.