How to Solve Workplace Problems

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If you’ve ever shrugged off a few tough days on the job with “work is just work”, you’re not alone. People grow complacent about issues in the workplace because jobs are expected to come with adversity and challenges, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. When a quarter of your life is spent at work, it’s a huge factor in your physical and mental health, and solving workplace problems goes a long way toward battling the stress and burnout that so many people face.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Use your words. Communication will always be the best first line of defense when solving workplace problems. Beyond that, there are other methods.

Examples of Workplace Problems

Not all problems are created equally, so while you may have a problem that could be easily resolved through communication and diplomacy, some problems are so serious that they must be escalated through the chain of command immediately.

Problems that routinely come up in the workplace include:

  • Loudness: In an open-floor workspace age, some colleagues fail to realize how disruptive their behavior can be, from computer sounds to being loud while talking on the phone.

  • Respect: Just because people are colleagues doesn’t mean that respect is always shown. Those with little regard for others can be hugely disruptive in the workplace when it means equality is threatened and camaraderie is derailed.

  • Harassment: In many workplaces, this is strongly regulated, but it’s still common and often comes down to “he said, she said” confrontations between both parties. In these instances, speaking up for yourself with the person in question could help, but odds are that things will need escalating through higher channels.

  • Theft of work product: If someone is stealing a co-worker’s work or ideas and passing it off as his own, it’s a problem that can make or break careers.

  • Incompetence or sabotage: If another co-worker's incompetence or an act of sabotage will impact your work performance, that's a problem that needs resolving pronto.
  • Poor management: Managers who are ill-suited to their role are an enormous problem. It’s so widespread that it’s become a parody mainstay in cult-classic filmed entertainment like “Office Space” and “The Office.”

Seven Steps of Problem Solving

This is a written, step-based strategy for handling most problems, from process and method problems in the workplace to dealing with problem personnel. These steps have been widely shared by many relationship and employment experts, as they tend to work both with people and many task-based scenarios.

  1. Identify the problem. This is the perfect “five W’s” situation: What’s the problem, why is it a problem, when did it start, who is involved and where does it transpire? The better you can detail the problem, the more likely you’ll have early insight as to its solutions.
  2. Ascertain the causes. Drill down: Why is this problem happening? This may require some deep digging on your behalf since, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Being harassed or ill treated by another is never OK; it’s inexcusable but figure out if you’re being targeted or if this is general behavior toward most colleagues or subordinates. If it's just you, try to figure out why you’re being targeted. It won't justify the behavior, but it could help you find the solution.

  3. Set your objective. What does solving this problem look like for you? After this, how do you want things to be? Understanding why this is an ideal outcome for you may also give you clarity on how to more easily reach that solution.

  4. Brainstorm. Write down all your possible solutions, from outlandish to downright diplomatic. What’s resonating? What are the pros and cons?

  5. Choose your way. After proper evaluation of all your options, it’s time to pick a method. Narrow things down for plausibility and achievable outcomes. Sometimes, the best solution isn’t the one you’d like the most, but it’s the one that will have the best results for all concerned. Being perceived as being objective and reasonable is beneficial in most workplaces, so choose pragmatically, as it could put you in new light with the bosses.

  6. Put things in motion. Now it’s time to move ahead with solving the problem. It’s OK to dread this sometimes because confrontation is upsetting for most people. It’s difficult to rock the boat and stand up for what you feel is right, but no matter how unsettling it feels, it’ll be a load off once you take that first step, and who knows? You could be surprised with how it goes.

  7. Re-evaluate. So, how did it go? If you’re satisfied, then that’s great, and the job is done. If not, what were the shortcomings in how it played out? Do you have cause to continue your efforts or a means of appealing the outcome?

Tips for Handling Difficult Colleagues

When problem solving isn’t working, or things haven’t quite escalated to the point of confrontation, managing your interactions and reactions is the way to go. Maybe there’s a co-worker you just dislike, or you have to deal with someone whose work ethic doesn’t match yours. There are all sorts of scenarios for which these approaches can keep things in check.

  • Keep engagement at a minimum. Sometimes, avoidance is the best policy, so walk the long way around. Check your phone or read a memo as you pass the person's desk. Stick to the clock for meetings and don’t linger when done.

  • Face it head on. If you can do so tactfully, confront the issue with the colleague. If she's always chatty, cut her short with, “Sorry, I have deadlines to meet, so I’ll have to leave it there.” If she's the negative type who is always complaining, find a way out of the conversation, like, “I can’t say I’ve had the same experience, but I understand how you feel. Sorry, I’ve got to get back to work.”

  • Flip the script. Sure, someone’s actions might hurt your feelings or frustrate you, but being bothered is what you’re choosing to be rather than a default reaction. Instead, move on and let it go (for now, anyhow).

  • Refocus the perspective. If a colleague or superior seems to have it in for you and is resistant to helping you with a project or task, remind her that it’s not about you – it’s for the success of the company.  If it’s someone who’s just slow, ineffective or shirking her task, remind her that you’ll need her report before you can create the graphics to support her copy, for instance.

Talking Matters Too

Sometimes, problem-solving skills don’t work as well when it’s a problem of a different magnitude, like trying to handle working in a job that isn’t what was promised or when your boss fails to notice the work that you do. In these instances, the seven steps may not be as practical or helpful.

Those can be the moments when it’s best to turn to someone whose opinion about professional matters is one that you trust — ideally, someone outside of the workplace so it can’t come back to bite you. Get things off your chest with him and discuss your possible responses going forward.

Once you're calm, try to talk it out with those concerned. In the end, the most frequent solution to average, everyday problems is through communication.

References

About the Author

Steffani Cameron is a professional writer who has written for the Washington Post, Culture, Yahoo!, Canadian Traveller, and many other platforms. Some writing projects have included ghost-writing for CEOs and doing strategy white papers. She frequently writes for corporate clients representing Fortune 500 brands on subjects that include marketing, business, and social media trends.