Finding Common Ground Requires Trust 

 Last year I worked with a number of businesses experiencing problems. Some were huge problems. Recently, I tried to help the local community deal with a problem— without much success. Even though we all know what to do to fix problems, we often forget some of the basics. I did with the recent community issue so I thought it would be worth writing this reminder.


The Most Important Step to Problem Solving


The first and by far most important step in solving a problem is to first get agreement on what the problem actually is. This sounds simple which is why we often short-cut this step. Sales down? There’s a problem! We all agree we need to get sales up? Okay, let’s get to work on it.


The next thing you know, sales is in a heated argument with marketing. Marketing is complaining about not having the resources to develop the materials that sales is asking for. Operations insists that the marketing budget is tied to sales which means that as sales drop so does the marketing budget.Circular argument.


Everybody wants something but nobody can agree on who should get what. Tempers flare. I thought we started with agreement? We didn’t.


It’s sort of like this. The power bill isn’t paid. The power company turns the electricity off. You find yourself freezing in the dark. The problem is not the temperature or the lighting.  Those who do not know that the power bill wasn’t paid aren’t going to have a good grasp of the problem. If the quest for solutions starts at “we are freezing in the dark”, the answers are not going to be particularly effective or long-lasting. Yes, we could burn the furniture to produce heat and light but that isn’t a practical solution. We might blame the payables department. Later we discover that the money wasn’t available to cover the bill.The problem may be setting a priority of payments. The problem may be excess power consumption. Think a bit deeper.


Getting agreement on the problem itself requires some research and deep thinking. The ‘high level’ problem may be only a symptom of a much deeper problem. Yes, sales are down and the problem is….?


That conversation may very likely set off a pretty raucous dialogue but in the right hands and under tight control, a team with common interests can make it through the discussion and arrive at an agreed solution.   


The Team with Different Agendas


Sometimes you will face, like I did, groups with opposing goals. This makes it far harder to reach agreement on the problem. In business, the person in charge can direct the divergent groups toward a common goal. In other situations, government for example, hopeless (hapless?) deadlock is often the result. In that case, power wins. Power wins whether agreement is reached or not. Power wins whether a solution is found or not.


In government, we have to live with the decisions that those with the power make. That’s why it’s so important to elect competent people with good goals and the sense to implement them.


In business, if we find that power or politics defines all problems and determines all decisions, a culture change is urgently needed.


This Is a Fine Mess You’ve Got Us Into


Now we find ourselves in a real difficulty. Changing a culture from private kingdoms to cooperation is a hard job. But if you can’t get solid agreements on problems, you won’t ever reach the best solutions.


You must change the culture to one of trust and communication. Trust first. When looking for agreement on the problem, people must be able to trust that the team has common goals. They must trust that speaking up about problems won’t bring repercussions. You have to foster a trust environment. CEOs need to know they have the backing of the board. Employees have to know their boss supports them and that being wrong or making a mistake is not cause for humiliation. Employees have to know, particularly when they have to deal with a tough situation that the team is behind them.


That’s where I blew it recently. The team was behind me. I identified the problem as an inept city government (3 of 5 council members were self-appointed having skipped the election process). This council is moving in a direction that will hurt the city and the majority of citizens agree with that. But the citizens in a small town are reluctant to criticize their council friends. While the decisions may be harming the city, they refuse to see the decision makers as part of the problem. I completely miscalculated that.


So, even though nearly everyone (except the council) went into the room with a common position, there was no agreement on a solution. There were passionate speeches and talk of petitions but no agreement on the problem and thus, no agreement on the solution.


The Bitter Pill


What do you do when you can’t change the culture? Then you have to change the people. If someone is not willing to work with the team on common goals, it’s time to change the team.


That’s a bitter pill to swallow and needs to come AFTER setting down the rules on trust. What too often happens when it’s time to cut people is that the problem members remain while those trying to bring change are escorted out. This happens because the obstructionists to change often have a lot of seniority. The newest members are the ones with the energy to build and innovate but they learn quickly to get in line or find themselves outside the circle. It’s easy to brand them as complainers and toss them out the door. It’s happened to me.  I’ve seen businesses fail because old ways remain embedded in the culture. The innovators and change agents are stifled.


Let’s Summarize

To reach agreement on a solution you first need agreement on the problem. That requires more than a cursory estimate of the issue.


When two people seek a solution, it should be relatively easy to arrive at the definition of the problem. A healthy team with common goals should be able to reach agreement on the definition of a problem. If there is friction in the process, the process, or the culture needs to change. Trust and communication are the keys to building a successful culture.


Finally, those not willing to adapt to the open culture of trust and communication should be cut from the team. Be careful not to confuse “getting along” with being open and trust-worthy. Some people find it very hard to get along when they must devote their time to watching their back.


Chris Reich, TeachU