TBM 14/52: Discussing Complex Problems with Leaders

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As a systems thinker type, how do you broach complex problems to leaders in your company? Note: I mention "leaders" below, but it is safe to say that most of us have a tendency to respond this way. Especially when we're under pressure.

Most leaders find the idea of a complex systemic issue threatening. There's no clear root-cause. There's uncertainty and unpredictability. And it is all happening on their watch.

So while you might think you're being helpful by presenting the issue (in all its nuance), it will not go over well. The leader will ask you for specifics. Who did what? Who said what? What should I do? They need information to solve the problem (one of dozens of problems they've heard about that day). They want a clear problem to solve, not a complex challenge to ruminate over.

What confuse them further is that you likely aren't just speaking for yourself. Empaths and systems thinkers often channel to needs of the collective. Meanwhile most of the people in their office that day have brought in specific problems and asks. In the back of the leader's mind they are thinking "I'm confused, what does this person actually want, and why do they care about this?" If you avoid specifics to respect people's privacy, and maybe even protect them, you risk the "so people are talking about..." problem. No one wants to hear "so people are talking."

So what should you do instead? As a card-carrying sponge these types of problems, I would never suggest you stop being you. I can go into my particular background in another post, but I've come to see this type of radar as a gift. It might have started from a not-so-happy place, but it is who I am. So be you 100%.

That said, it is important to get very clear on your goal. What do you want out of the conversation? What are YOUR needs in all this? What would be an ideal next step?

At least for me, I often feel a lot more comfortable talking about the needs of other people. Being a spokesperson. Channeling the pain/stress of others. I'm not as comfortable talking about my own needs (even when those needs related to others, e.g. "I want to feel my coworkers are safe and happy").

The problem with speaking for people, is that you will be much more likely to elicit a threat response. And you're liable to misrepresent their perspective, or even undermine their efforts.

I've found (recently, it took a long time) that I can be a lot more effective if I:

  1. Speak about my own needs, and my response to the situation. This can be a big step.

  2. Have an ask in mind. This doesn't mean having a "solution". A next step will suffice.

  3. Have an ask ready for the person I am speaking to. What do I want THEM to do?

  4. Consider the role I want to play in this. What responsibilities do I want to take on?

  5. Work to create safe spaces where other people can try to voice their own needs (vs. proxying).

  6. If the problem is thorny and complex, with lots of moving parts, try to focus in on one moving part as a starting point.

  7. Consider safe-to-fail experiments beforehand. Your first experiment could be facilitating a conversation with more people and the leader.

  8. Put myself in the shoes of the leader (e.g. this being the tenth conversation about problems so far today).

Hope this helps.