There are several reasons why a problem at work, that seems relatively uncomplicated, turns out to be resistant to your efforts to make it better. For example, in dealing with an employee who consistently avoids talking with others, a manager may decide that the employee needs to increase his interpersonal communication skills — only to find that feedback and a workshop had absolutely no benefit. When that happens, you, the manager, need to go into ‘discovery’ mode to find out what the problem is before trying to solve it. Otherwise, you may continue “barking up the wrong tree.” You’ll be distracted and lose your sense of where to focus your attention.

Early in my career I worked at a new job where I took over supervision of an office team leader — I’ll call her Gail — who was responsible for the work of administrative support staff. She had been in the same position for 12 years. Over that time, the organization had grown with more staff, new technology, and increased demand on its services.

She continued to respond to predictable occurrences, such as staff calling in sick, as if each were a crisis requiring only her attention. She maintained tight control over communication, thus not letting staff solve problems directly with the services they supported. I noticed there had been increased complaints from amongst her staff as well as those whom staff assisted. She was years older than I was, and she let me know how much more about the organization she knew than I.

In the first year, I focused on attempts to improve her knowledge and skill level, with a view that she ‘needed to keep up with the times’. As things worsened over the year with higher levels of turnover of staff, I realized I did not yet understand the problem.

5 key steps can help you uncover the root of a staff problem like this.

To help me understand why someone is behaving in a certain way, I often use Robert Dilts’ model called ‘Logical Levels’. It explains the connection between the way a person thinks, their capabilities, and what they do in a particular environment. He uses the sentence, ‘I – can’t – do – that – here’ to focus on the varied potential reasons, from the individual’s perspective, that a result is not being achieved. Read below for the 5 steps in the model and examples of how I began to understand the situation I was dealing with.

Clarify what role the employee is playing: “’She’ can’t do that here”

‘She’ asks the question whether the individual understands her role, and if she is aware of how it has changed over time. Gail was still behaving as if she were overseeing a small team where she is ‘controller’ of the work being done. She had not shifted her focus to being a manager with a ‘connecting’ role with other services. With her comment that ‘she knows the place better than I’, she seemed defensive about her role in relation to mine.

Clarify her beliefs and values: “She ‘can’t’ do that here”

‘Can’t’ asks the question about what your employee believes and values. If Gail’s belief, in this example, is that ‘you can’t trust others to take responsibility’, she will act on those beliefs in a certain way to ‘do it herself’.  Since many people are uncomfortable talking formally about their beliefs, you may have to surface this information from regular discussions.

The question, ‘what are your beliefs and values?’ may make your employee feel awkward; alternatively, ‘tell me about the job in your life that you’ve enjoyed the most’ may more easily elicit the information you need.

In Gail’s case, her favourite job was as a home organizer where people hired her as an expert to help them sort through their ‘crap’ (as she put it). This told me she felt comfortable being in the role of ‘expert’ where people listen to her advice. That was okay for part of her role, but was an impediment for other expectations in this organizational environment where she had to seek and rely on the advice of others.

Assess if she has the requisite competencies to do the job. “She can’t ‘do’ that here”

‘Do’ asks the question about your employee’s core skills. You would be interested that the individual has the skill to do the technical tasks such as scheduling, and the ‘softer’ skills to be a team player and interact with other services. Make sure in your discussions with her that you describe your expectations of the full set of competencies to do the job.

Describe her behaviours as she interacts with those around her: “She can’t do ‘that’ here”

‘That’ asks the question about what specific behaviours you are expecting to see in the employee’s role, and then to describe what you are seeing. For example, your expectation may be that Gail should proactively plan coverage during sick time instead of rushing at the last minute. Be specific. Writing ‘she is always fighting fires’ will not help to guide your problem-solving efforts. Rather, specify, ‘In the past 4 months she has had 20 days where staff called in sick, where she spent the first hour of each morning arranging adequate coverage.’

Describe the environment in which she and the others are working: “She can’t do that ‘here’

‘Here’ asks the question about whether the environment is supportive of the work you want your employee to do. Are the resources available to do the job? Is the facility and décor right for the tone you want to set?

Include yourself in ‘her’ environment. For example, what feedback are you providing her and how? You can share your description of her specific behaviours that need to be improved. Is she aware of the complaints by others? Are you explicitly recognizing any strengths she brings to her role?

And, consider whether her behaviours are different in other environments. So, for example, as a member of an inter-departmental group planning an event, you see that she contributes her knowledge and respects others’ contributions. From that observation, you know she is capable of the right behaviours in a different environment. The issue is, therefore, likely at the values and beliefs and role levels.

When I set out to help Gail improve her skills, I could have predicted that a skills-development strategy alone would not work. The problem wasn’t about skills, it was about how she saw her role in the organization and her belief that she could continue using the skills that were within her comfort level from a previous role.

It was my job to provide her with feedback and coaching about how the organization had changed, the new requirements for management and leadership in the role, and the expectations for skills and behaviours as she carried out that role. If change wasn’t forthcoming, it would mean further intervention to move her to a more suitable role or to exit the organization. In my example, I ended up restructuring the department and Gail moved to a event-co-ordinator role.

Here are 4 tips for using this model as a first step to understanding the problem you are dealing with:
  • First, be curious and ask for and verify information to help you assess the situation at all the levels.
  • Identify at which level a problem is occurring.
  • Strategize how to target the solution at the appropriate level.
  • Evaluate the outcome of your intervention and reassess the problem using the model.

With practice and experience, you can effectively apply the model in real time to assess the problem and consider which strategies are more likely to work.

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