How do you solve a problem like ‘each other’?

Simon Ellis | December 19, 2018

Time to read: 5 mins

Jeremy Clarkson once said something that I still find useful to this day. I know, I’m surprised too. He said, and I paraphrase: “When you’re on the motorway and someone comes up behind you, just pull over and get out of the way. Whoever it is might be rushing the commute, not out of arrogance, but simply to get home, maybe to see their kid before they go to bed.”

The point being, or at last the point I like to think he was making, was that it’s far less stressful (and more productive) to not let things get personal based on assumption alone. I could assume the driver behind me is an arrogant bully, which would cause me to feel defensive and act accordingly – or I could consider that person as someone simply eager to get home to read a bed time story, in which case they’d have my sympathy and I would feel both empowered and fulfilled by getting out of the way. Of course, either could be true, as could any number of alternative narratives, but what’s the most productive attitude to take for a) the flow of the motorway ie. the collective good, and b) my sanity?

Sadly, in every organisation there will be individuals, groups, teams and departments at loggerheads with others in the same organisation. I say ‘sadly’; it’s human nature. Nevertheless, it’s not productive I’m sure we can agree. It’s also not very fun either. Yet situations arise, fester and then become engrained, almost at a DNA level because those attitudes can often be passed on from generation to generation of new staff, like a cold virus lingering in the air con.

As an approach to problem solving, Design Thinking is inherently human-centred and objective oriented, which makes it helpful in considering what might at first appear intractable situations between groups of people, where escape or running away is not an option. Not a long-term one anyway.

So, to paraphrase Mother Abbess from the Sound of Music: “How do you solve a problem like, er, each other?”

So, to paraphrase Mother Abbess from the Sound of Music: “How do you solve a problem like, er, each other…using Design Thinking?”

First, define what your objective is.

I can tell you now, it is not to win. It could be to improve working relations, but why? Grumbles and animosity can rumble on for years, so you need to go further with your definition of success. A good reason could be because it’s in the interests of the company. That’s good because it depersonalises the situation. Perhaps a better one might be that it reduces stress and makes coming to work more fulfilling or enjoyable (which in turn is in the interest of the company).

Second, empathy.

You need to step out of your shoes and into the protagonists’. Why? Because you simply need more data. And when humans don’t have data they are prone to interpolate with assumption. Note, they are protagonists, as opposed to antagonists. It’s an important distinction for your mindset. If you see them as being the problem, empathy will never work. To be good at empathy you need to shuck off all assumptions and go in with an open mind and a receptive heart. What you are looking for from this approach is better understanding, an unbiased mindset that is ready to problem solve, and to re-humanise the protagonists. Wait, what?

In any conflict, as we drive deeper into a mindset of defence and defiance, it serves our purpose better to forget the humanity of the opposing force. We see this in war of course, and we see it with online trolling. And we see it in office politics. Individuals are reduced out of convenience to a singular, inhuman label – obstructive, beancounter, pen pusher, jobsworth, glory boy, suck up, and not forgetting the broader classics; bitch, cow, bully and asshole.

To return to the motorway for a moment, I could label the guy riding my tail as a tosser, which is an inhuman label and serves only to heighten animosity between us. But as soon as I shuck off any assumptions and consider for a moment why someone might be rushing along a motorway, I have already started to empathise in a useful way – his wife’s pregnant and he just got the call. It might not be true, but it doesn’t matter, I’m getting out of the way and I’m happy about it.

Third, connect.

Empathy is great for re-establishing an open mindset and seeing the ‘opposing force’ as a fellow human being again, but all you’ve done is slip the gearstick from reverse to neutral. Now we need to get that data, and in order to do that we need to connect. Don’t ask around, don’t Google them, don’t check their LinkedIn profile. Call them, walk along to their desk, chat, be genuine, be vulnerable (more on that below). See if they fancy a coffee in the canteen and then enjoy that coffee. Talk about their work, discover what they’re up against. Give time. And as you listen, reflect on how your previous mindset might have contributed to this situation. Do not seek to blame them – nor yourself. This is about problem solving and blame will get you nowhere.

Fourth, extend a helping hand.

Imagine the tension between two opposing forces is a rope between two tug-o’-war teams. Each is pulling against the other to move the same marker flag a pretty small distance to get across their win line. It’s a stalemate where everyone comes away with burned fingers. As we’ve established with the steps above though, we’re no longer trying to win anything – we’re trying to improve a situation. So now we can go to the other team, find out why moving that flag is so important to them, and then find out how you can help them achieve their goal. You’re trying to move the same flag after all.

Fifth, ask them for help.

Showing vulnerability is a powerful way to build trust. We live in a world where vulnerabilities are hidden away, not spoken about or disguised. Ironically, that makes us more vulnerable – we become fictitious versions of ourselves which can be exhausting to maintain. No-one is without weaknesses, be it cake, wine, talking in public or shoes. Similarly, no-one is without strengths, be it compassion, diligence, leadership or maths. So why pretend otherwise? Ask for help, share your pains, work together on a new way of working.

Sixth, iterate, review and iterate again.

Any process of improvement is a creative process. And I can tell you now, being ‘creative’ is not running about an open field in a thunderstorm waiting to be struck by lightning. Being ‘creative’ is about pragmatism, positivity and openness. That’s acknowledging where things aren’t quite right (without pointing or accepting blame), remaining positive that you can find a better solution (together), and being receptive to new ideas. ‘Creativity’ is growth, and it is inherent in all of us.

Lastly, be mindful. The secret to resolving a bad relationship at work can be found in the good relationships that you have, because in those relationships you will do at least some of the things above without even thinking about them. But as much as bad relationships can be improved, so good relationships can corrode. Be mindful, not of others but of yourself: do you have all the data, or are you filling in the blanks with negative assumptions? Is your mindset open, or have you circled the wagons? If you’re pulling on a rope, who’s on the other end?

If you liked this article I’d love your feedback (and shares of course). I welcome your comments and please get in touch if you’d like to expand the conversation over coffee.

Thanks for reading.

Si Ellis