Who’s Actually Causing the Problem?

4 minute read

A leader I work with, Shannon, shared that she has a team member, Paul, who is developing a reputation for “being hard to work with.”  As we dove into the details, it was clear that Paul was saying no when people came to him with repeated rush requests and wanted to sidestep the established process. The team members from other departments felt that Paul was being difficult because he wouldn’t change the process every time they were late. After listening for a minute, I stopped Shannon and asked her, “Who’s actually creating the real problem?”

Shortcuts, The Quickest Way to Shoot Ourselves In The Foot

When other people want help with a problem, it can feel really good to help them by creating shortcuts to the normal process. Sometimes I’ve literally been asked to “hook me up, bro” by compressing my work because they were late with a request.  

What’s actually happening is we’re working against ourselves. You have specific processes for a good reason. It takes a specific amount of time to do the job so that you can be confident in success.

Each time you accept it when others bring a problem and ask to compress a five-day workflow into two days, you teach them that it’s okay. You are choosing to say yes to that request. When that pattern is replicated again and again, the reality for the other person is that there is a two-day (not five-day) process. That may mean that you continually stay late at work, do extra work on short notice, or keep asking for favors from team members. 

It’s on You

You have created the very problem that you’re frustrated about. 

They asked, and you said “yes.”

Surprised? A lot of people are when they realize this. I’ve done this lots of times when I’ve accepted things that didn’t really work for me. It could have been a report that I worked to clean up or a lazy friendship where I was doing the vast majority of the work. This works just as well for relationships and communication expectations as it does for technical work.

The most important thing to do is to clearly communicate what your standard workflow is, and then stick to it. The more you are crystal clear on how people can work with you effectively, the more you can hold them to it.

Pointing the Finger

Right now, you can probably picture the people who are your “problem children.”  You may even feel anxiety just when you see a repeat offender coming towards your office, or want to vigorously shake them out of their focus on what works for them.

The next time you get a request for last-minute support, remind them even though you’ve done this in the past, it’s created problems because that isn’t how things work. That could literally be you saying, “Look, I know I’ve handled your requests differently in the past and it’s time for that to stop because it’s creating problems. The best way for us to work together is to follow the established process. What questions do you have about that, so that this will work for you and me?”

You’re changing the steps in the dance routine that you and your partner have been sharing. It will probably feel a little weird as you get out of this rhythm and into a new one.  

Exceptions Create Overextension

Before people begin throwing tomatoes, I know it’s normal to have exceptions and special cases on a periodic basis. That’s just reality. You can help yourself by being really selective in deciding when to grant an exception. Remember that if everyone gets an exception, that’s the regular level of service, it’s not an actual exception.  

This will be a new thing to practice for many people, so start with some easy places to build your skill. If you are in a management or leadership position, you are probably there because you have demonstrated a pattern of doing more than what’s required, of looking for additional ways to help the team. That works great until you’re overstretched, worn out, and juggling solutions to problems that other people have created and you have taken on. You may feel exhausted from this, and you deserve better. And you can help create that for yourself, one step at a time. 

Give us a call if you want a hand, we’re happy to help.