What to do when you don’t know what the problem is

Managers are often expected to have all the answers. And of course, good managers will find solutions when they see it as a priority. Yet what do you do when you don’t know what the problem is or don’t see it as important? Often times, we do nothing. I’m guilty of this, too, but Grace gave me a reminder this week about why you should do something even when you don’t know exactly what the problem is (or would rather not deal with it!). 

Grace was having neck problems this week and I had hoped it would work its way out without my intervention. It didn’t! Whether an employee hides or exaggerates symptoms of a larger issue, you need to acknowledge the problem and take action to resolve it.

While Grace and I were on our typical walk Monday afternoon, she lunged at a heron that was unexpectedly just ahead of us near the road’s edge. Between her rush to reach this large bird and my instinct to pull back, the leash jerked her in a rapid, awkward motion. I was in awe of the beautiful heron and never once considered any ramifications for Grace. But later that night when she showed signs of discomfort, my husband reminded me of the heron incident. Could she have pulled her neck out of alignment, he suggested? Maybe. Though she didn’t seem bothered when it happened and the whole thing seemed so minor to me. I figured it would work its way out. Over the next few days, she walked without noticeable signs of pain, but there were other indicators that things weren’t quite right. She laid around with her neck in a particular way, didn’t want to eat her dinner, and whined a lot. By Wednesday night, my hope of having this issue “work its way out” was now becoming a very bad idea. It wasn’t improving, in fact, the opposite. This was not what I wanted: my plate was already bursting and oh, how nice it would have been if this issue would just vanish without my involvement.

Recognize there is a problem

In the workplace, I see this happen a lot. Employees can exhibit subtle signs of discomfort, but a manager doesn’t pick up on it, or worse, downplays the importance of it. Even though Grace’s whining was hard to listen to, she definitely uses it as a tool to communicate with me. And because she never passes up a meal, that got my attention! During the course of the week, she was making it increasingly difficult for me to ignore the signs of the problem.

If your employee is timid or stoic, he may not want to ruffle feathers by complaining. Or on the other extreme, a team member might grumble about something you think is ridiculous. Either approach makes it easier for you to dismiss the issue. However, not taking action is not going to fix the problem. The resentment will build, making matters worse.

Do something about it

How long do you let your employees suffer? Remember, even if you don’t agree with the situation, it doesn’t make it less real for those that are experiencing it. There is really no excuse for putting your head in the sand. Do something. Talk it out together. Enlist the help of others. If you feel someone is making more out of a situation, express that, too. Set expectations for acceptable behavior and hold everyone accountable to the same standard. And even if you can’t immediately solve the problem, your commitment to work on it goes a long way to ease anxiety about it.

In my case, I finally accepted on Thursday that Grace’s issue wasn’t going to resolve itself. I called the chiropractor, who offered to fit us in at 6:30 the next morning (I was very grateful for her sense of urgency!) She found that Grace’s topmost vertebra, called the atlas, was out of alignment. Within 15 minutes, the problem had been identified and a solution in motion. But Grace probably wondered why I didn’t do that days ago for her. Your employees might be wondering the same thing.

The sooner you address a problem, the easier and less time-consuming it is to fix it. Getting all the pieces in alignment doesn’t always require a chiropractor but I highly recommend using as many resources as you need to tackle an issue. You don’t have to be the solution, but you do need to ensure it happens.

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