What’s your problem?

Typical corporate problem-solving session
Typical corporate problem-solving session

Whenever I get stressed about a work-related problem, I try to remind myself that most of what I do really doesn’t matter. After all, if some content I’ve written has a typo or spelling mistake then it’s easily fixed. After all, I’m not a pilot or air traffic controller and my mistakes don’t result in a flaming wreck at the end of the runway or debris raining from the skies.

Yet so many workplaces seem to treat any problem or mistake as a capital crime and, instead of simply correcting the error or solving the challenge, indulge in witch-hunts, shaming or straight out verbal abuse. Why this is so? Why is this culture of blame and witch-hunting so prevalent?

Perhaps one of the industries we could learn from is the aviation industry, where mistakes really do have catastrophic endings. Over the past 30 years determined effort by aviation experts has vastly improved the industry’s safety record. I believe it is because the industry accepts – no, expects – that humans make errors; that we get stressed, tired, overwhelmed, and have limited memory capacity. Meanwhile, the average corporate manager seems to believe that his staff is an army of infallible robots running on an unlimited power supply.

In aviation, instead of artificial power plays where employees are shamed for making mistakes, they create systems designed for error-prone humans. Work hours are limited to reduce fatigue, pilots have checklists for daily procedures and emergencies so they don’t rely on memory, jobs are duplicated so the team has the resources they need when an emergency situation does arise. Granted, it’s still fallible but given the myriad of things that could go wrong in such a complex exercise as flying an airplane, it’s amazing more doesn’t go wrong.

Author Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter of his book Outliers to an analysis of how culture issues within Korean Air contributed to a string of crashes from the 1970s to 1999, and it is well worth reading. In a nutshell, the strict hierarchical culture of Korean society contributed to the co-pilot and flight engineers watching as a Korean Air captain flew his plane into the side of a mountain even though they both knew they had to take corrective action. Only once they changed this culture of not confronting superiors was the airline able to reduce crashes.

To a lesser extent, I think this mentality exists within many workplaces – a deference to authority and a mentality that mistakes and problems are bad and wrong instead of a natural part of living in a complicated and unpredictable world.

This belief system is incredibly destructive because instead of solving problems, we avoid them, hide them or blame them on someone else. One book that really gave me an insight as to why this may be so is “When I say no, I feel guilty” by Manuel J Smith. Although it was written in 1975, I think it still applies just as strongly today.

Smith writes that many of us have the unrealistic belief that having to live with problems day after day is unnatural and unhealthy, yet he notes humans are, in fact, brilliant problem solvers. We wouldn’t have evolved or survived as a species if we weren’t.

However, Smith felt that many of the people he counselled in therapy had issues not because of their problems, but because they lacked the emotional resources to deal with their problems and the people who caused them.

Somewhere along the way, we lose the natural assertiveness we have as children, says Smith’s and he attributes this to parenting styles.

You and I, and most of the rest of the population are trained to be responsive to negative emotional control as soon as we are able to speak and understand what other people tell us.”

Which is all very well when we are children to keep us under control, he says, but unfortunately many of us retain this belief system into adulthood. We feel and think that it is wrong to make a mistake and many of us lack the ability to be assertive without being aggressive. In the workplace, this can result in a scolding mother mentality among managers and a naughty child response from their staff.

So what is the answer? Well, if we accept that life is a series of problems to be solved – and that mistakes and errors are a natural part of life instead of viewing them as a disaster, or feeling judged, life is a lot more fun and a lot less stressful. It becomes a series of interesting puzzles to be figured out rather that an endless series of disaster. Coupled with learning to be assertive rather than aggressive, it would create a much more pleasant workplace culture. Smith books details just how to do this and I highly recommend it to anyone who finds it hard to say no or feels bullied.

I know this seems a simplistic solution – and there are many problems on a global scale that seem overwhelming – but try it for a while and see how it goes, you might be surprised at the difference it makes to all aspects of your life.

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