Solving People Problems

Actually this article is not about solving people’s problems, it is about how to get people to do what you want them to do. The simplest context is that of working in a business, but the process is also applicable to personal situations. The central issue is how do you get someone to do what you want done? There is a rational process for doing this. It does require their cooperation, but assuming you have a common objective this is posible and does not have to invole blackmail or any other illeagal or immoral activity.

The Basics

Given a situation in which someone did not do what you wanted them to do, how do you get them to change their behaviour so they will do what you want rather than repeat the undesireable behaviour. If someone does not do as you want them to do, there are only two possible reasons for their behaviour.

First: they cannot do what you want them to do because they lack the ability to do it.
The first is an ability problem. They literally can not do what you want them to do. A quick example should help qualify this situation. If you are confronted by a robber who holds a gun to your head and demands that you give them a $100 bill. In this situation most of us want to do as the robber demands. We want to live! We are motivated! If we do not have the required bill giving the robber one hundred dollars will not do—he wants a one hundred dollar bill. Assuming you do not carry one hundred dollar bills on your person, this is an ability problem, No matter how much we want to do it we cannot because we do not have the demanded banknote.

Second: they want to do something else because they lack motivation to do what you want done.
The second situation is a direct clash of our desires and their desires. Here we must point out that you can only negotiate this situation if you do indeed have a common objective. We need to jointly examine the consequences of performing or not performing the desired behaviour. One person’s wants will prevail in this situation. In other words we will have a consequence off to determine whose wants will become uppermost. We want to motivate the other person to do what we want done.


So our first action in our hypothetical situation mentioned above is to find out why the other person did what they did. We need information from them to understand which of the two possble reasons explain their behaviour. They we can determine what course of action we need to follow to change their behaviour.

However, two common obstacles commonly arise at this point. Let me illustrate with a couple short examples. Let us say an employee was late for work one morning and their supervisor catches up with them later that morning. What does the supervisor say?

"That was a bonehead move you pulled this morning!"

The employee now has to interpret this comment and respond. Several thoughts and responses are possible:
  • What did I do? There is uncertainty because the supervisor did not spell out the topic of discussion. Lack of specificity is hampering the communication. Some supervisors actually do this deliberately with the mistaken idea that a fishing expedition is good policy because it might turn up something they did not previously know about. In the long term baiting employees in this manner only causes them to clam up and say the minimum possible. The less that is said the harder time we have determining whether their problem is an ability problem or a motivation problem.
  • What does he know about? This is one step more paranoid than the above and also reduces the quantity and quality of the communication. Again we have determining whether their problem is an ability problem or a motivation problem.
  • Bonehead move? who does she think she is?’ This is the other main problem because now the employee will become defensive. How much communication takes place when we are defensive?
In this situation the supervisor needs to communicate specifically and non-threateningly. Something like this:

"Bill you were fifteen minutes late for work this morning, Help me understand what happened."

This is specific. Bill knows exactly what his supervisor is asking of him. It also invites Bill to share information rather than judging him or threatening him. The very fact that his supervisor brings it up also tells him that it matters and that he should not be late. Whatever Bill's reason for being late, the supervisor has invited a response and has not threatened him. Naturally, to be effective this message must be consistent in words, as well as in tone of voice and in non-verbal behaviour.

Diagnose the problem type

Based on how the other person responds and what they say we now have to make a decision whether we think it is an ability problem or a motivation problem. It is helpful to remember a few basics. Take what the person says at face value. If it is really an ability problem then no amount of motivation will solve it, and you will be back talking to them soon and they will not be able to credably claim it is an ability problem at that point. The same logic applies if they represent it as a motivation problem but it is really an ability problem. So trust the other person and what they say .

The basic criteria for deciding which problem you are dealing with is this: If they had a gun to their heads could they do it. If the answer is no then it is an ability problem. If the answer is yes, then it is a motivation problem.

Solving Ability Problems

Based on Bill’s response, the supervisor can determine whether Bill has an ability problem or a motivation problem. Ability problems are the simplest to solve. Since the other person is intimately familiar with the situation, take advantage of their knowlege and create involvement by asking them what they need to solve this problem. Do this even if you think you know what to do. This is about getting them to solve the problem!

The solution to ability problems is either to provide training or to provide resources which create the ability in the other person to solve the problem, Figure out between you what training or resources are necessary and sufficient. Try asking:

“What do you need to prevent this from happening in the future.”

Solving Motivation Problems

Here we need to dip into a bit of practical motivation theory. I have found it useful to differentiate motivation from movement. Motivation is an internal matter and movement is doing something whether we want to do it or not. So which should we try first? If we try to force someone, can we then effectively come back and try to motivate them? No! But if we try to motivate first and that fails, we can always come back and try to move them afterwards. So we go through the motivation process in the following order:
  1. Motivation - Ask what are the natural consequences to themselves of doing or not doing the desired behaviour. Purely internal consequences to self.
  2. Motivation - Ask what are the natural consequences to others of doing or not doing the desired behaviour. Purely internal consequences but recognise effect on others.
  3. Movement - Ask what are the consequences to your supervisor of doing or not doing the desired behaviour? This is a power relationship so it recognises that these are potentially, at least, imposed consequences.
  4. Movement - Ask what are the consequences to the organization of doing or not doing the desired behaviour. This is definitely a power relationship and if exercised our only choice is to comply or leave the organization.
These four steps are a heirachy. We always start at item one for the reason indicated above. We go as far up the list as we need to get compliance or if the matter is not that important we may choose to back off at any point in the process. We obviously do not fire people for being late to work once.

The Wind Up

Whether the problem was an ability or motivation we need a couple steps to wind things up sucessfully. In order to be certain that an understanding has been reached and the necessary follow through occurs, it is a good idea to finish by summarizing who does what and when. This makes sure that both parties are clear as to what actions they need to take and when they will check back with each other.

When all of this has been arranged, it is useful to conclude with something like the following. “Is there anything else you need in the future to prevent this situation from recurring?” This creates an opportunity to see if there are other issues which have not been adressed. A summary of this process is shown on the next page.

Problem Solving Summary

  1. Communicate the situation (specifically and nonpunishingly)

  2. Diagnose, is it an Ability problem or a Motivation problem.

  3. Address the Problem
  4. Solve the Ability ProblemCommunicate the Consequenses
    a) Ask for Ideasa) Natural to self (short and long term)
    b) Give Training orb) Natural to others
    c) Provide resourcesc) To supervisor (start with natural)
    d) Imposed

  5. Once you've gained compliance:
  6. a) Determine Who does What and When.
    b) Set a follow up date

  7. Ask, "Is there anything keeping you from doing this in the future?"



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