Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Solve Your Own Problems

Solutions to the work problems of others always seem rather obvious!

I often bring to class the behavioral, performance or interpersonal questions that I receive through email or on the Workplace Doctor’s site.  I put the question (with identifying characteristics changed) on a PowerPoint slide, and the class discusses responses. Similar things happen every time I go through this process.

First, as participants silently read the questions, many can’t keep themselves from responding verbally in some way.  They groan in frustration or irritation, or they laugh, shake their heads in disbelief or shout out their immediate response to the question.

Second, in almost every case, the solution to a problem the writer thinks is almost unsolveable, seems obvious to the participants in the class. Nearly always someone will start his or her response with, “Good Grief! All he has to do is……………..” Or, “I can’t believe she has to write and ask someone about that!”

Third, during class or at break time, some of those same people talk about an almost unsolveable problem they have–and the solution seems very obvious to others and to me. Sometimes as one person walks away, another will essentially say to me, “I can’t believe he doesn’t see what to do about that! Now…let me tell you about my problem….”

Work problems of others always seem more easily solved than our own, because we are not part of them. We don’t have to deal with the culture, relationship histories, and other realities of the situations. We think of solutions from the viewpoints of our own styles and wonder why others haven’t tried those approaches. Most of all, I have noticed that it is easy to suggest strong, straightforward action by other people, even though we are not strong and straightforward about our own work problems.

Start the New Year by solving some of your own problems.

1. If you have an ongoing problem with someone or some situation, put yourself in an outsider role and ask yourself for advice. It might help you to do what I sometimes suggest–write the problem using fictional names.

2. Another way to get an overview of the problem is to write it from the viewpoint of the key players involved. It may be helpful to think about what the other people are telling their confidantes when they ask for advice about dealing with you!

3. Describe The Gap. Make three columns and label them. The lefthand column is What Is. The center column is What I Want. The Righthand column is What I Must Do.

4. Break the problem situation into specific issues. Then, for each issue, write what would be realistically preferable. (Don’t assume the entire office must revolve around your preferences. But if something interferes with work or is inappropriate or harmful, you are right to ask for change or adjustment.)

5. In the third column, list specific actions you will be required to do to at least start the process of improvement. This reminds us that if we have a problem we need to take responsibility for it, rather than hinting around and hoping someone braver and stronger will rescue us.

Your required action may be to gain more support from others, to wait until another time, to find out more, or to document a bit longer. Or, you may need to write a formal complaint letter, say something specific to someone about their actions, complain higher up the chain, move to another assignment or quit. You are only writing those actions now, you don’t have to actually do them–but it is useful to confront what it will take personally to make things better.

6. Decide which of the actions you are willing to do and what is something you won’t do, given your style or the situation. (It is almost never a case of can’t do, it’s won’t do.) It is good to know what you won’t do. That way you are not the victim, you have made a choice.

7. Do what you can do. That is probably the best advice for any problem. Once you have decided the specific things that make a situation a problem for you and have determined what you can appropriately and correctly do,  move toward the solution by doing what you can do until the problem is solved, or until you can truthfully say you have done many specific, appropriate things at every level in the organization, and have exhausted every possible resource for solving the problem.  At least then, you can decide where to go from there.

The Bottom Line: If you have an ongoing workplace problem, make a commitment to either solve it or at least take strong action about it so there is no question about your views, opinions or preferences. At that point you may need to simply accept it as a negative part of work that you are willing to tolerate.

It will be easier to do those things if you look at your problem as if it belongs to a stranger and you are reading about it in a class. And, the next time you hear about a problem in a class, perhaps you will be more empathetic!

December 26th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 5 comments


  1. This is a good post, as usual. I depend upon a lot of your posts to keep me motivated. Thanks for your efforts. Tom

    Comment by T.D. | December 26, 2008

  2. I really like this website and have spent a lot of time looking at it. I like the variety of topics and the way you use photos. Also, it’s colorful, and I like the quotations.

    But, as much as I like it, I have a complaint. Could you please put a calendar with your training schedule somewhere on the site? I see your “About Me” page with general information, but nothing that tells me when you have classes coming up. If you did that, it would be perfect. Thanks!

    Comment by Denver1 | December 26, 2008

  3. Tina says:

    Thanks, T.D., for your comments. You always seem so motivated, that I can’t imagine anyone else needs to keep you that way. But, I’m happy to help! 🙂

    Denver1, thank you for the nice compliments. I put a lot of effort into this site, and always hope people are aware of it and appreciate it. (Doesn’t that sound needy?)

    I don’t have a training calendar because very little training I do is open registration. Usually it is for a specific organization. However, if I get an email asking about a training topic, I can refer the person to a class I have scheduled, or sometimes work with the writer to produce a class in his or her area or within his or her organization.

    I sent you an email about that, and hopefully we can get something put together soon! Thanks again.

    Comment by TLR | December 26, 2008

  4. I got so busy going through the maze I forgot about my problem.

    Oh yeah, it is this..that people will ask for help with problems, but they don’t really want it. They just want to gripe or get sympathy. Sometimes I think they just want to hear themselves talk. In every class of yours in Laramie, my boss has asked about how to handle a problem we’ve had for awhile, and you’ve given her good advice that I think would work. But, here it is a year later and she still is doing things the opposite way and it’s not working.

    I asked her why she didn’t do it the way you suggested and she said it wouldn’t work. But she hasn’t ever tried! But she spends time every day complaining that there isn’t anything she can do about the problem. It gripes me! But I only have one more year to go, then freedom!

    Comment by Wiseacre | December 30, 2008

  5. A very helpful list for solving problems at work. I like the reminder that we make choices. Don

    Comment by Don R. | December 30, 2008

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