Oswald Letter

Admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem

There’s a very powerful scene from the first episode of the television series The Newsroom, which debuted on HBO last year. In the scene, the news anchor, played by Jeff Daniels, is a member of a panel that sits before a large auditorium filled with adults of various ages. A young woman from the crowd steps forward to ask a question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”

The other two panelists answer the question quickly with pat answers about diversity and freedom, but Daniels’ character thinks for a second and says, “It’s not the greatest country in the world.” The moderator, obviously uncomfortable with that answer, tries to change the subject, but the anchorman continues with a harsh and honest assessment about why America isn’t the greatest country in the world. The crowd sits in shocked silence.

This scene, which you can find here, is great theater. (Note: It contains some strong language.) It’s no wonder it has garnered more than five million page views. And whether or not you agree with the anchor’s response, his speech is a thought-provoking declaration on the state of America today. But as compelling as this scene is, the thing that caught my attention was the second-to-last sentence uttered by Daniels: “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”

It’s an interesting notion—you can’t solve a problem until you admit you have one. As managers, how common is it for us to ignore a problem in hopes that it might just go away? Probably too common. But let’s be honest, how often does a problem just go away? You can ignore a problem, but that doesn’t mean it has been resolved.

And if denial is the weapon of first resort for many managers, what’s the second? Excuses. Deny you have a problem until you can no longer ignore it or refute its existence, and then begin to make excuses for why the problem exists.

But denial and excuses bring you no closer to solving the problem. As Daniels’ character states, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” You certainly can’t solve a problem by pretending there isn’t one. Nor can you find a resolution by making excuses. First you must admit there is a problem. Then you can explore what the causes are.

Do you think for a minute this doesn’t go on under your watch? How many times has your department missed a deadline only to set a new one? And how many times does that second deadline get reset after being missed? Move your deadlines back enough times and you never miss one! But have you really solved the problem of missed deadlines in your department? No.

Maybe your deadlines are too aggressive and unreasonable, causing you to miss them time and time again. Or might it be that in the planning stages of a project, not all steps are considered and therefore not included in your scope of work? Or could it be that the project manager isn’t doing his job well and is causing repeated delays? There can be many reasons for the problem, but admitting you have one is the first step in discovering the solution.

In my experience, problem employees are the toughest problems to solve. People are complicated. Determining what is causing problems with employees is difficult. Is the person lazy or incompetent? Do you have him in the wrong position for his skill set or experience? If you changed his duties or position, would it produce better results?

I’m a firm believer that when it comes to people problems, you need to make sure you have done a thorough and honest assessment of the problem. When someone’s livelihood is at stake, you don’t want to fire from the hip. Take the missed deadlines—it might be easy to conclude that the project manager is failing at his job as he misses deadline after deadline. But further exploration might uncover a different problem. What if the project manager isn’t in full control of every step of the process? What if, after closer examination, you discover that the process breaks down at a certain point when another department becomes involved? Suddenly, the project manager might not be the problem. Taking your time when determining the cause of people problems is necessary.

To be an effective leader, you must be willing to face difficult problems. Pretending that everything in your world is perfect is only going to lead to problems. Admitting you have problems and moving quickly to find solutions are the key to success. No one—and I mean no one—goes through life without problems. If you can’t face your problems, they’re bound to repeat themselves. Get on the road to solving your problems—start by admitting you have them.

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