Being a leader isn’t just about delegating work and managing teams. Strong leadership comes from the cultivation of important soft skills for workplace success. One of the most important is a strong ability to solve problems constructively. Constructive problem-solving is the antithesis of absolutes and ultimatums. It’s about finding a positive outcome from a negative situation, and realizing opportunities for betterment instead of just seeking out a resolution. Leaders who can solve problems constructively create broad benefits for themselves, their subordinates and the company they work for—everything from improved workplace satisfaction to better productivity.
The Stoic Roots Of Constructivism
“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus
Constructive problem solving has roots in the metaphysical practice of stoicism. Ancient figures like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius offer an endless stream of quotes and wisdom regarding constructivism, and it’s no surprise that modern leaders today follow this sage advice—everyone from military generals to essential CEOs. The stoic doesn’t look at a problem and remark “this is a problem.” Instead, stoic leaders see problems and immediately look for opportunity. They recognize that a problem is something that has already happened—something they can’t go back in time and undo. Instead, they have control over how they react to it and how they shape the future ahead. The essence of constructive problem solving is about turning today’s problem into tomorrow’s betterment.
An Example Of Constructive Problem-Solving
Consider an example every leader is sure to encounter at some point: an unmotivated employee. They might leave tasks half-finished, deliver sub-par performance or fail to meet expectations on a consistent basis. The absolute resolution is a simple one: terminate their employment and hire someone new. But this also means handling the onboarding a new employee and adding a new element to the workgroup dynamic. But what about the constructive approach? Meet with the employee and address their performance in a non-confrontational way. Ask about their concerns. Gauge their personal expectations. Be willing to help them succeed. Inspiring them to rise above their current performance takes leadership, and choosing to face the problem constructively can have fruitful rewards. That employee becomes a strong contributing member of the team, with respect for you, the job and themselves.
Realize Constructive Opportunities
Most opportunities for constructive problem-solving are obfuscated. That is, it doesn’t always seem like the work is worth the reward. It takes smart leadership to see past the barriers to the reward and to make the right call. There’s a difference between a Sisyphean task and one with positive, beneficial outcomes.
To practice constructive problem-solving, you first need to practice contextual analysis. Using the example above, ask the following questions:
- What are the benefits/drawbacks of working with an underperforming employee?
- Is hiring a new employee worth the hassle of posting jobs online?
- What are the opportunity costs of choosing either option?
Leadership is about breaking down these questions to perform a cost-benefits analysis. This is the only way to determine if hard work upfront will result in greater reward in the future, or if time wasted now will lead to continued underperformance. This type of analysis is constructive problem-solving in and of itself. You’re not making a snap judgement or an impulsive decision. You’re taking the time to weigh your options and make a smart, conscious decision. You’re being constructive—adding value instead of jumping to an absolute decision.
Constructive Problem-Solving Is Invaluable
Constructive-problem solving goes far beyond choosing to hire or fire an underperforming employee. It can creep into every aspect of leadership. It’s an important trait at every level—from supervising direct reports, to providing mission-critical insight as an interim executive or expert consultant. It’s one thing to be a good problem-solver—it’s another to create value in the face of problems. It means adapting the mindset of the stoic and recognizing opportunity in the face of adversity. How can I use the obstacle in front of me to improve the prospects of the road beyond it? Those who can take a problem and turn it into an opportunity will distinguish themselves over those who only know how to make a problem go away.