How Not to Fix Problems When You are Fixing Problems

How Not to Fix Problems When You are Fixing Problems

4000 2667 Fahmida Zaman Ema

Have you ever been a class captain? If you have, you may remember that as a “captain” of the class, you had certain authority as well as responsibilities. These responsibilities generally included to report and resolve class related issues. For example, if there was a fight in your classroom, it might have been within your jurisdiction to fix that problem. On the other hand, if you were one of the students who had a fight with a fellow classmate, you probably expected that your class captain had a role to play in resolving it.

Such experiences as children taught that when you are in an authoritative position, you must fix problems, usually other people’s problems. And when you are not the authority, you expect someone who is to fix your problems. These ideas are positively reinforced as part of being a responsible adult. As adults, your ability to take other people’s problems and give them back solutions is one of the main components of gaining credibility and authority.

However, this may not have been the best thing you learnt as children. Because this tendency discourages adaptive changes, which requires changing our priorities, habits, beliefs, behaviors, and values for long term solutions. We are tempted to provide technical fixes with short term solutions and at times rewarded for being able to do so. But, that is until the problems resurface.

At Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC), we teach our students to place the challenges where it belongs instead of shouldering it themselves. In other words, we encourage our students to look for adaptive solutions to adaptive challenges instead of a quick technical fix. The students learn to turn “the people with the problems” to “the people with the solution,” by letting the issue be “internalized, owned, and ultimately resolved” by the parties involved.

Does this mean when you are practicing leadership, you should not intervene and let other people do the work? Exercising leadership essentially involve interventions. However, in order for such interventions to be an act of leadership, there are four tactics you need to follow.

First, make observations. Making observations is simply when you reflect back to what is happening in a situation. It allows the parties involved to distance themselves and get a perspective on what they are doing.

Second, ask question. Asking questions is significant when you are practicing leadership because it provides the opportunity to clarify, review, or simply to step back from the problem. You might use a question to avoid the “line of fire”, while still getting the issue addressed.

Third, offer your interpretations. When you offer your interpretations, it permits you to see if there is any hidden issue underneath the problem. But after offering an intervention, remember to listen to how your perspective is received by the group. In offering an interpretation, be ready to prove you’re still on the “team”.

Finally, take actions. Taking actions sends messages. For example, if someone walks out of a room during a meeting, it may communicate that his or her issues are not being addressed or the conversation is too tense for that person. You must also keep in mind that since people can interpret your actions differently, it can sometimes complicate the issue. Thus, when you take actions, the message and the context must be crystal clear.

As children, you learnt that you must be able to fix problems in order to be a credible and responsible adult. But, the ways you were encouraged to do so might not have resulted in adaptive long term solutions. At BYLC, our students unlearn such ways and prepare themselves to bring about adaptive solutions for long term changes.


This article is based on a chapter titled Give the Work Back in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky.