Problem Solving
By Joseph Swerdzewski


Problem-solving is a process that involves both communication and trust. Supervisors face a multitude of potential workplace problems, which might range from determining the holiday leave schedules for a 24-7 operation to determining which employees will be laid off. In the end, the responsibility to resolve such problems will fall on an organization’s management. However problem-solving processes and the degree to which solutions are transparent will be of considerable interest to employees.


Most supervisors think that they are good problem solvers. They know that if there is a problem, they will come up with a solution. Solving a problem by yourself is very different than solving a problem using the input of your employees. There is always more than one way to solve a problem, and problems can be solved alone, with the input of other supervisors, or with employees. Much of the informal give and take in a workplace could be seen to be a form of collaborative problem-solving. Supervisors and employees often engage in informal, as well as formal, problem-solving processes that can either enhance communication or, when unsuccessful, leading to distrust. Not all problems lend themselves to supervisor-employee collaboration. However, if you want an engaged workforce joint supervisor-employee problem solving can be an effective technique to engage your employees.


Of course, on the labor-management level, problem-solving usually takes place through collective bargaining. Successful collective bargaining may also use many of the problem-solving techniques discussed here.


Philosophies of Supervision
There are two basic philosophies of supervision: compliance and collaboration. One of the most important responsibilities a supervisor has is implementing change in order to improve the work unit’s effectiveness. The supervisor’s chosen methods for implementing change will largely decide which supervision philosophy they adopt. At different times, the supervisor may switch between the two philosophies as deemed appropriate.


A philosophy of compliance is based on the idea that a supervisor should direct employees as to what they are to do, then evaluate employees on how well they comply. This approach leaves major decisions in the supervisor’s hands and allows for only minimal input from employees. If employees do not comply with the supervisor’s directions, they will face negative consequences. Compliance is often used when supervisors try to force change on employees.


On the other hand, a philosophy of collaboration involves engaging employees when decisions are to be made. Collaboration is usually used when supervisors wish to foster change through employee support, which can create a good work environment for employees. This approach requires significant input from employees, who must take active responsibility for assisting in the problem-solving process. A supervisor cannot engage in collaborative problem solving alone. Successful collaborative problem solving may require training for both supervisors and employees.


If you are a supervisor, think of a workplace problem that you are currently having and how problem solving with your employees would develop a sound solution as well as a more successful workplace. Employees, think of how you can assist in solving a workplace problem through collaboration with your supervisor. The five basic steps to collaborative, supervisor-employee problem solving will be explained with the aid of an example.


1. Identify issues
Each participant in the problem-solving process must have a clear understanding of what issue needs resolving. Defining the issue at the beginning will greatly improve the chances for success.


For example, Tucker, who supervises the Accounting Reports Section, is concerned that his employee’s reports are being turned in late. He has two options. He can warn employees that if reports continue to be late, consequences will result. In order to successfully use this compliance approach, Tucker must know exactly what he wants done, and his employees must obey completely. On the other hand, Tucker can try to find out why the reports are consistently late. If he chooses this collaborative option to work with his employees, then he should meet with them to discuss the problem.


2. Identify interests
Before the meeting, Tucker should notify employees of its purpose so that they can prepare to work together. Each participant should identify his or her own needs to be satisfied, as well as what concerns must be addressed in order to reach a successful solution. This process is based on explanation, not justification.


To open the discussion, Tucker should look for reasons, not solutions, by asking his employees why the reports are not being submitted on time. As the supervisor, Tucker’s main interest is the work being accomplished on time. The employees’ interest is not only accomplishing the work, but also having adequate time to devote to the task. By soliciting his employees’ opinions, Tucker will discover their reasons for and concerns regarding the late reports.


3. Develop options
Group brainstorming will allow Tucker and his employees to formulate options for getting the reports done on time. Tucker should ask for possible solutions from each participant, and all options should be discussed. For example, one option might be to change the submission deadlines for the reports. Another option might be to lessen the amount of information to be covered. A third option might be to require that all employees check in with Tucker on a regular basis.


4. Develop standards
Standards are a strainer through which we run all options to weigh their value as solutions. Standards will help determine which options make the most sense. One standard could be cost effectiveness. Another standard could be efficiency. A common standard is fairness.


5. Judge options according to the standards
Each option should be judged according to the standards. In Tucker’s situation, if one option involves hiring additional staff when the standard is cost effectiveness, then this option is clearly not the most appropriate. While all participants in the problem-solving process should be involved in judging options, the supervisor will make the final decision.


This problem-solving process will create byproducts of increased communication and trust, which will lead to a more collaborative work environment. By engaging employees in solving problems, supervisors create opportunities for transparency, which is essential for developing, increasing, and maintaining trust. However, collaborative problem solving is not intended to replace a supervisor’s accountability for the implemented solutions.