Problems, Compromise and Consensus

“Leaders who get team members to solve their own problems are making a sound investment that will pay off with many benefits: their team members will become less dependent on them, more self–directing, more self-sufficient, and more capable of solving problems on their own.”

― Thomas Gordon

Back before the mid-80’s, employees were routinely told what, when and how to do their job assignments, without question; those that asked “why” were considered troublemakers, their “why” challenged established hierachal authority – managers/employers know best, that’s why they are. But by the early 90’s it was a time when companies began to realize that their employees where better educated and had more life experiences than the previous generation of workers, that the new generation wasn’t content to be just worker drones, they wanted to have a say in how they performed their jobs and in the work environment, and also had ideas about how to improve the company’s performance. 

Many companies and government agencies, recognizing the talent they had working for them, started hiring consultants to teach selected in-house employees who would then, in turn, teach both management and labor in how to have productive meetings (structure and order) and effectively communicate (one example: using “I” statements – “I think/feel” – and not “you” statements – the blame game), how to problem-solve, and then facilitate (as neutral moderators and resource personnel) small problem-solving groups (“teams”) that included employees and managers in every department, who met weekly to achieve a win-win solution – employee job satisfaction and the business’ bottom line – by identifying and solving problems that impact both.

For five years I was one of those in-house “facilitators” who coordinated a dozen such team’s efforts. 

I say five years, because that’s when I gave up trying. It wasn’t because I wasn’t up to the task, it wasn’t because everyone failed to grasp and apply the concepts I taught them. It was because the task itself ultimately became unmanageable. The initial enthusiasm by both managers and employees, and success by the teams – in time – gave way to partisan interests, management wanting team employees to work more on the bottom line, and employee members wanting to focus more on how to make their work more personally satisfying. A new problem arose, both sides forgetting that when both’s interests coincided, no one loses, both win. Once both sides discovered the other’s agenda was reverting to one-sided interests, and insistence on it, they both lost sight of their common goal and a solution became unachievable. In the end, whatever progress had been made came to naught and things went back to the way they were prior. It was a problem I couldn’t fix, you can’t make people cooperate or work selflessly. It was to be an on-going process, but became a failed program. I shut it down.

Shame, really. Because its tenets are valid and its techniques really can work. What I learned, what I taught, can be applied to any interpersonal situation. You can solve your individual problems by doing whatever makes you happy. But if it also involves others, I guarantee you, together you can resolve most mutual problems if you and they set aside self-serving interests and work towards a common, win-win goal:

The first thing to understand is that sometimes there is no way around a problem, some things “just are”, such is life, but there may be a way to mitigate the problem, make it more palatable, and that a partial solution to its cause is better than none. But most problems can be resolved in a way that meaningful changes can be effected.

• There’s never a problem when eveyone is happy with their job and the company is profiting. When something either isn’t working, or not working the way it was intended or wanted, there’s a problem somewhere.

• Brainstorm and reach a consensus of just what the real problem is.

• Once identified, the opposite is what is wanted, the goal – problem eliminated.

• Brainstorm and identify all possible causes to the problem, that is keeping you from your goal, focusing finally on a consensus on the probable primary cause.

• Brainstorm all possible alternative solutions to eliminate or mitigate the primary cause, choosing by consensus the best solution.

• Implement the solution. If it doesn’t attain your goal, start over until the problem is resolved and you attain your goal.

Just remember, problems don’t have solutions, problems have causes; you need solutions to the causes.

And remember, when brainstorming, keep an eye on your responses. They may be more about you and your wishes than what might be the real issue.

Maybe the real issue is actually you and what you want, selfishly, and not what is best for everyone involved.

Strive for compromise and consensus. It’s the only way everyone wins.

– Bill


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