“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” Henry Ford
It’s funny how the mind sometimes takes circuitous routes to bring us insights. While sitting up in bed this morning, eating bread and butter and honey(1), mucking about on Twitter, and feeling aggrieved over the state of my washing machine(2), I had an epiphany. I realised what it was that had gone wrong for me in a couple of my jobs, before this latest stint of freelancing and back when I was ‘working for the man’. In these particular jobs, I had whaled into my work thinking I was doing the right thing and, as I saw it, doing what exactly had been outlined for me in my position description and job interview. You can imagine my dismay (perhaps distress is a better word) when my efforts were met with hostility, overt and covert, and when I was upbraided by my employers for not being “nice”(3) to them.
This was not just nasty to experience, but surreal. I had tried to be a positive, hard-working and useful member of the team. I knew that I had made no false promises and had tried always to be diplomatic in my dealings with others, always keeping the focus on business, never ever being personal. In the strategies I was working to there were problems, big scary problems, problems that had not been alluded to during the job interview, induction or in the position description. But I was aware that I had described myself as a problem solver in my application (I always do as a matter of course because I am). So I assumed that the people who had hired me had done so, so that I could fix up these problems. Which I was happy to do because I’m good at it.
So the yells of dismay that erupted from my hirers when I pitched in and got to work were surprising. I was not the only one who was evidently in shock. The anger of my hirers was laced with a feeling of outrage and expressed in these bizarre complaints that I wasn’t being nice enough to them. It’s as if they wanted a surrogate Aunty or life coach, and not a professional (and unfailingly civil) manager or project manager cleaning up derailed and risky strategies.
But this morning I realised what the clash of expectations actually had been. I thought I had been hired to solve or fix problems. My employers had hired me to make the problems go away. I am used to thinking that these are the same things. But in the minds of some people who harbour unreasonable expectations(4) they are not.
To my mind there is a difference between A problem and THE problem. Most often people will be fixated on a problem – “Oh!” they say “If only we could have / buy / ditch / nobble ‘ABC’, then life would be perfect”. But actually, while ‘ABC’ is a problem, maybe even a major problem, these people fail to see that ‘ABC’ is actually caused by underlying problem ‘XYZ’. Even if they successfully manage to get rid of problem ‘ABC’ (and it will be difficult to do this if they don’t tackle problem ‘XYZ’) then good old problem ‘XYZ’ will manifest in the form of a new problem down the track, like a disease that manifests itself in one symptom or another. But you can have a devil of a time explaining this to people who have rusted on attitudes, or even selfish agendas, around blaming problem ‘ABC’.
Black mould. Get it in my bathroom once in a blue moon. Nasty stuff, and if left unchecked will spread, look like yuck, wreck the paintwork and even cause health problems. I keep it at bay by washing down my walls and ceiling with white vinegar every few months when it appears. Black mould is a problem, but it is not THE problem. The problem is that my bathroom is inadequately ventilated – has no fan and during winter it’s too damned cold to shower with the window open. And, layered below this, there is a further problem. I rent from a landlord who doesn’t want to spend money, so there is nothing I can do to improve ventilation. So, because I cannot address THE problem (i.e. lack of ventilation), I can expect to have to continue having to stamp out a problem (i.e. black mould) on a regular basis.
(1) REAL Yellow Box honey, bought from the man who extracted it himself from his very own bees.
(2) Broken and so, so ancient that it is beyond fixable.
(3) Yes. They used this word.
(4) And who perhaps have reason to feel a little guilty over their own work performances.