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Leadership and Problem Solving

Posted by Bob Little | 10-Oct-2018 10:11:00


Everyone faces problems. Even if we call them ‘opportunities’, they’re still problems. While humanity hasn’t yet found a satisfactory process which will solve all our problems, there are some problem-solving approaches and techniques that can prove effective – especially in a work context, notably with regard to three key issues for leaders: change, teambuilding and communication.

Leading Change

Today’s rapid pace of change means that organisations are altering their strategies, structures, systems, boundaries and expectations. This contributes to our uncertainty about the future and poses problems for those charged with introducing, maintaining and/or leading change within their organisations – and ensuring that it’s successful.

This uncertainty means:

  • We’re leading more fragmented lives and living in an unstable world – and so we’re more fearful about our future.
  • While uncertainty provokes fear, anxiety and a sense of loss, those in leadership positions must face their own fears and find ways to enable people in their organisations to co-create new ways forward and to let go of old habits and identities.
  • Removing blame-centred approaches to problem solving and introducing a more multi-layered way of understanding how things happen in organisations will support leaders in feeling less ashamed about ‘not knowing all the answers’ and enabling them to either reach for help or experiment with more connected ways of behaving.
  • Uncertainty and change can provoke active engagement, enthusiasm and highly creative responses from people.
  • People are now expected to manage their careers by cultivating a deep understanding of themselves and by working to improve their performance.

Individuals, teams and organisations are involved in the change process but leaders have a responsibility not only to make change happen but also to manage this process in the most beneficial way for those involved – especially for their organisation.

Leaders learn to focus on outcomes and tangible results. Yet, while outcomes are important, leaders should also identify the underlying emotions of those involved in the change because these will determine whether that change will be sustained and, ultimately, successful. Those leading and managing the change must balance three key dimensions:

  • Developing and delivering business outcomes,
  • Enabling people and the organisational culture to adapt emotionally, and
  • Mobilising influence, authority and power to achieve the desired result.

There are four schools of thought when considering getting individuals to change:

  • The behavioural approach - changing behaviours through reward and punishment.
  • The cognitive approach - achieving results through positive reframing (goal setting and coaching to achieve results). So, it’s our brain-controlled view of the world, not our behaviour, which determines our approach to change.
  • The psychodynamic approach - understanding and relating to the inner world of change.
  • The humanistic psychological approach - believing in development and growth and, so, maximising potential. It emphasises healthy development; healthy authentic relationships and healthy organisations.

Each of these approaches has advice for those leading organisational change:

  • Get your reward strategies right (behavioural)
  • Link goals to motivation (cognitive)
  • Treat people as individuals and understand their emotional states as well as your own (psychodynamic)
  • Be authentic and believe that people want to grow and develop (humanistic)

To lead and manage change successfully, other things need to be in place too. You need a team, with well-thought-out roles and committed people who’re ‘in for the duration’ – not just for the ‘kick-off’. Moreover, the timing must be right and followers must accept the leader’s vision.


‘We’ve  got the right people. We just can’t get them working together in the way that we want,’ is a familiar lament. So how can leaders harness people’s latent skills and abilities?

One answer is to focus on the process skills that teams need and which enable people to speak with a common language and understanding. Additionally, teams need practical mechanisms through which they can address ongoing work projects and problems.

The issue is about improving individual and team performance. In turn, this means that leaders must address both the visible and invisible elements of business life.

Before initiating a project, it’s important to define the purpose behind the project. This is a long way from merely focusing on the project’s outcome. It requires people to ask questions about stakeholder interests, success criteria and, perhaps, even about the business itself. To complement this, the leader must help the team develop a range of ‘process’ skills relating to how people communicate, the rules that govern their behaviour and the group’s norms.

All groups have ‘processes’ but they’re seldom agreed and, unsurprisingly, this leads to misunderstandings and problems. When people focus on the processes of their groups or teams, they can then agree how they want to work, as well as finding ways to draw on the resources available to them.

A second core mechanism which helps teams is the ‘effective planning’ grid. This grid helps the team to consider all perspectives carefully. The team assesses the current level of knowledge and skills that exist, the array of ‘unknowns’ they face, as well as what resources, time and information they need. Only after full consideration of all these issues should a team formulate its plan.


Organisations operate in a complex world requiring problem solving that’s sound and decision making that’s robust - and all with multiple stakeholders. To achieve any degree of success, all of this requires effective communication skills.

One approach to is to develop facilitation skills. Facilitation has become increasingly important as organisations devote resources to gaining buy-in and engagement in tackling organisational issues as part of their change programmes. Facilitation can help achieve key strategic goals, encourage participation, achieve continuous improvement and tackle organisational problems.

Facilitation is a skill which is fundamental for all leaders who manage teams, manage projects and lead change initiatives. It can identify and resolve issues, encourage productive interaction, develop accurate objectives and define projects’ scope. This, then, allows an accurate development of objectives through communication, engaging stakeholders and encouraging team members to contribute. Since project objectives are clarified, constructive solutions can be drawn out of discussions resulting in higher rates of project success.

Effective facilitators empower and encourage teams to achieve enhanced organisational productivity, effective problem solving and increased worker engagement.

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