As a manager, you will face many situations where you need to respond quickly to understand an issue and then make a decision to act. It could be that an employee comes to your office with a serious problem, or the boss asks what you think at a meeting on an issue you aren’t prepared to talk about.

Consider this situation: some staff have recently reported to you about a problem in reception. Clients are complaining that other staff are talking to them rudely and not scheduling their appointments properly. You and your boss were just at a meeting, together with similar organizations, where everyone’s client satisfaction data was shared. Your organization’s rating was in the lowest 20th percentile. On the way home your boss asks what’s going on.

Saying something general like, ‘yes, this is serious, I am talking with staff’, will not satisfy your boss’s need for assurance that the issue is being dealt with. Also, you may feel embarrassed that you waited too long to address the issue, or anxious that you don’t know how to deal with the problem.

Ideally, you want to stay calm, organize your thoughts, communicate something useful, and take action as needed. It may seem that experienced managers automatically know what to do and are able to make decisions and act swiftly. However, underlying their response is a thought process anyone can learn. With practice, it becomes habitual, and can be efficiently applied to common issues and new challenges.

The thought process is divided into 3 steps:

1) Describe what happened or is happening.

2) Analyze its meaning and impact,

3) Decide what to do about it.

Shortened to “What? So what? Now what?” this thought sequence provides a quick way to figure out your response. The model was developed by Gary Rolfe in 2001 as a reflective practice tool for nurses. Nurses were taught to look back at their responses to an interaction with a client or situation, evaluate retrospectively how they responded, and determine what they would do in the future.

This simple 3-step approach can also be used in the moment to analyze and communicate about situations. It can be used again after you’ve dealt with the issue to reflect on and learn from the experience.

Here is an example of how the tool can be used in the case described above:


Observe and ask questions to be able to describe the facts about what has happened:

  • Who did what, and when?
  • How are others reacting, and what actions have they or are taking in response?
  • What policies are in place that give guidance?
These observations could help you respond to your boss:

“What I know so far, from talking with clients and staff, is that I can pinpoint the complaints are about the behaviour of 2 out of 10 reception staff. This seemed to have started with the hiring of a new person about 4 months ago. The staff who reported this say they feel the receptionists’ behaviour is contrary to our values statement to treat clients with respect, but have felt an allegiance to their colleagues and have not complained until now.”

So What? 

Consider the meaning and impact of this event or issue and describe the following:

  • The level of priority or urgency of this matter.
  • Any assumptions or generalizations that you or others may be making, that first appeared as facts but that are not verified.
  • Any effect the issue has had on the goals you and your team are working towards.
  • Any effect the matter has had on others, including, for example, clients, staff, other teams or programs, your boss, and the organization as a whole.
From your analysis in this section, you would continue your response to your boss:

“This issue is serious since we are far below achieving our targets for quality care and our reputation is at risk as a result of how these clients are talking in the community, and how the client satisfaction results are now openly shared.”

 Now What?

Plan the steps you will now take:

  • Think critically, problem solve and plan for action.
  • Decide options and analyze the pros and cons
  • Decide who you need to involve.
  • Manage any emotional reaction you may be having.
From the problem solving completed at this stage, you complete your response to your boss:

“I am taking 3 actions to deal with the situation. First, I have scheduled meetings next week with each of the 2 employees separately to discuss their behaviours, and ensure they know what is expected. At our next staff meeting we will go over the values training module again. And, finally, I’ll monitor the situation to make sure I provide positive feedback on good behaviour and begin the disciplinary process if the problematic behaviour continues. I’ll be able to give you an update at the end of next week.”

This statement concisely states the facts, your analysis and action plan, and runs about a minute long. It doesn’t include excuses, or other tangential information that is irrelevant to the issue. For example, ‘these 2 staff are having coffee on their own and aren’t planning on coming to the holiday party’, may be a sign to you of poor team players, but is not directly relevant to this issue.

In a situation where you haven’t yet looked into the issue, your response to your boss’s question would be to describe the process of going through the 3 steps:

“I’ll talk to clients and staff to get the facts of what is going on. This is very serious given the impact on meeting our targets for quality. I’ll update you next week with recommendations for action, including not letting this slip by my attention again.”

Practice working through the 3 steps “What? So What? Now What?” for issues at work and at home to quicken your response time, and see how others respond to your newfound confidence.