The 5 things not to do when solving employee problems


II am the Human Resources (HR) Manager for a business process outsourcing company. Our newly appointed American CEO is perplexed as to why our typical worker doesn’t volunteer to fix a problem, even though it negatively affects their job. I told our CEO that we have to be patient, because maybe the workers are waiting to understand the management style of the new CEO. What is your opinion on that? – White flower.

He who waits to do something good will never accomplish anything. Management is not a waiting game. You should be the first to know this in HR, being the in-house people management specialist. If you’re a regular follower of this column, you’ll find that the common thread running through most of my advice is to be proactive with workers.

That’s why I’m not a big fan of exit interviews, which are too little, too late. They are responsive and reveal few clues about what is wrong with management. This assumes that the resigning employees are willing to share their frustrations. Most of the time, they don’t want to rock the boat so as not to delay the release of their terminal indemnity, work certificate, discharge and letter of recommendation for their next employer.

You can do a lot to encourage people to problem solve. Start by proposing a company-wide program to establish a formal framework, in which workers must identify their day-to-day operational problems and make recommendations to management on their proposed solution.

However, the real problem is that workers will have many solutions in mind. The problem is that they don’t know if management is receptive to their ideas if the work environment isn’t conducive. Sometimes, when asked to propose solutions, they talk about measures that are too costly for the organization to accept and implement.

I’ve spoken to many workers whose top recommendation is to hire additional labor as work piles up or buy expensive software to improve productivity. These are usually rejected by management even though the money is there.

In many cases, however, organizations do not have enough funds for these solutions. So what can we do? As I said earlier, management needs to create a working environment where problem solving and decision making is delegated to the workers to some extent. You may have heard of the employee suggestion program, kaizen teams, quality circles, union-management cooperation, or a combination of two or three of these.

Whatever you want to call it, start something by empowering people with an improvement program outlined in a simple policy, a suggestion form to use, the role of senior management, the approval process and the reward system. You can start from there and innovate as you go. In general, management should be cautious about the following:

First, don’t just trigger the trigger by dismissing employee ideas. Emphasize in the policy that management will only accept low cost solutions. It’s up to you to define the meaning of “low-cost”. Don’t take it literally. A budget of, say, $200 or even $500 may be acceptable if it solves a recurring problem of $1,500. It’s your call.

This is the true essence of kaizen (continuous improvement). This includes maximizing current resources to solve certain problems. Give examples of the type of preferred solutions that are welcome and likely to be approved. I have a list of such examples that I could share with you.

Second, don’t monopolize the discussion when you convene the group to solve a problem. Don’t fall victim to “group think”. It’s a principle in psychology that when a boss, senior team member, or bully voices an opinion, it tends to disrupt the critical thinking of others. If you’re tempted to say something, rephrase it as a question, or ask “why” multiple times to challenge the logic of the various statements.

Whatever you do, establish a discreet position. Let workers shine on their own. If you start advertising your preferred solution, chances are it will be misinterpreted as something you want to do.

Third, don’t interrupt team members as they present their ideas. If you disagree with a proposal, let the group decide for themselves as long as they follow established guidelines. The same principle applies even if you agree with something. This is the logic of joint ownership.

It would be easy for everyone to support an idea if they were allowed to weigh the pros and cons without active management intervention. Such group participation also helps convey the message that management trusts the system and the people working behind it.

Fourth, don’t let the discussion escalate into disagreement. In many cases this is unavoidable, but a practical solution is always available. If there is a conflict between team members, try to appease everyone by acknowledging that the positions of the opposing parties are both valid. Then review the rules if they contain a path to resolve the conflict.

Another approach is to solicit ideas from a passive member who might see things differently. As a last resort, allow all team members to hold a secret ballot to come to a final decision.

Finally, don’t forget to show your appreciation to the team and individuals. Kind words are easy to pronounce and work well in any situation. Don’t sound hypocritical or fake. Depending on the nature or importance of the problem in question, you can say something like, “That’s a great idea. Let’s explore it with the help of the team.

Make sure other band members hear your compliments. Doing so will encourage everyone to develop more ideas with the help of the team. Management should take every opportunity to promote teamwork in situations where workers are allowed to manage their own processes.

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