It Is Rarely About The Thing!

10 Dec

Managers are problem solvers by nature, so when an employee brings a problem or complaint forward, we managers are ready to spring into action. Years of managing, however, have taught me to resist the temptation. I have come to learn that ‘the thing’ that someone has brought forward as a complaint or concern is rarely the true root of their issue.


I recently had the opportunity to take part in the facilitation of an on-going issue between a manager and their employee. Both the manager and employee had recently been assigned to a newly formed work unit, so the reporting relationship between them was new. From the outset, there was tension between these two, but the issue came to a head when the employee lodged a formal complaint that he could no longer work with this new manager.

When I sat down with the employee, (let’s call him John), his frustration was immediately evident. His complaints about the manager centred on the assignment of work and deadlines. As we talked through the various pieces of the relationship, I noticed two themes: John was feeling ignored and under-appreciated, but he was also expressing pride in his work and his identity as a company employee. What was interesting to me is that both these themes were about John, not about his manager.

Following my instinct that the behaviour of John’s manager’s was not at the root of the problem, I changed the conversation to talk to John about his sense of purpose. John’s expression of pride lead me to believe he earnestly wanted to be a productive and contributing employee. Not wanting to assume too much, however, I asked him bluntly and he replied that it was a badge of honour in his life to be a part of the organization. So, why then was he stuck and frustrated?

Employee health is comprised of many parts, but the greatest is a sense of purpose. As John and I discussed his purpose, it emerged that the recent reorganization that landed him in the new work unit, had changed his job functions and he was no longer confident in his role, goals or objectives. There had been no real change management plan or transition considerations made for John and goals and objectives had not yet been set for the new work unit, let alone for the work unit members. As John struggled to continue to do the work that made sense to him and that gave him purpose, his manager became the personification of the forces that were moving him into the unknown.

John’s frustrations had little to do with his boss, but were rather only symptoms of a deeper issue. When your employees take the step of bringing an issue forward to you, resist the impulse to go into problem solving mode. Listen carefully to the tone and emotion that underlie the explanation and repeat the following phrase to yourself: “This issue is being related to me by a complex carbon-based life form who may or may not be in touch with the root cause of their issue.” Not every issue will have a subtext, but my experience is that ‘it is rarely about the thing’!

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