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The Leadership Playbook: Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

There are two choices a leader can make when dealing with problems. They can focus on the problem. Or they can focus on the person.

Invariably, in business, things go wrong. People make mistakes. Sometimes they make mistakes even when they have the best of intentions. Other times, they are simply negligent. People also fail to follow directions, sometimes because they misunderstand what was necessary, and sometimes because, mistakenly, they think they know better.

Focus on People Is the Problem

It’s easy for a leader to focus their attention on the person who made the mistake, failed, lost the client, or generally botched things up. That leader can blame the person for what went wrong by yelling at them, by embarrassing them, by threatening them, or by somehow penalizing the individual. This choice is often made by a leader who believes that people are the problem. The leaders of this variety are eternally plagued with people problems.

When people don’t feel a sense of psychological safety, they don’t do their best work. They also don’t stay long.

Focus on the Problem, Improve People

Another leader, a more enlightened leader perhaps, would focus on the problem instead of the person. Instead of focusing on trying to discover “what’s wrong” with the person, they focus on the mistake, using it as an opportunity to teach the person how they made the mistake, why it is important, and how to do something different when faced with the same scenario in the future.

Instead of focusing on the failure, the enlightened leader works on recovering from the failure. They allow the person to help with the recovery, teaching them how to do better in the future, and how to recover the next time they fail, something that is almost a certainty.

Instead of threatening, embarrassing, or punishing the person who botched things up, they help them un-botch things. By working with people to solve problems, the enlightened leader solves the problem and builds their people at the same time. They get problems solved, and they get better people. They also create a culture of psychological safety.

If you believe that people are your problem, that belief is your problem.

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