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Owning the Problem: Pathway to Happiness

My hunch is that you have already found yourself in a difficult situation that left you angry, confused, frustrated, and maybe even deeply concerned for your own professional standing. It can also happen to us in our important personal relationships. Professional or personal is not the point. Being in a complex, troubling, and confusing high stakes situation is a tough spot for anyone. The darkest hour in my last job had all those elements and was perhaps my greatest opportunity to learn and grow. There were to me general lessons learned that are worth sharing, and I am convinced have wide applicability. The specific details are not all that important but a little context might help. We had a product and financial crisis that was playing out across the front pages of the newspapers, the stock price was plummeting, and our major regulator was publically excoriating us. My most capable and trusted two colleagues were in charge of our day to day response, but it became apparent that for the first time in a six year up until then ideal partnership they were not working together as a team and were in some ways making the problem worse.

My reaction? Anger, frustration, confusion, fear, and uncertainty- my 3AM in the morning psychological basement tour was standing room only and those folks were not friendly or happy. Waiting for some dinner companions for an hour- it was Los Angeles traffic of course- catalyzed an epiphany for me. I asked myself, how much of the problem did I own? The question presented itself in the deepest, broadest and most comprehensive way. I wrote on the paper tablecloth a long, long list of things I could have and should have done better and differently all the way from resource allocation to capability building over the longer term to poor engagement in the immediate crisis. Again, the details do not matter, but the authentic, honest and complete analysis and ownership of my own failings was fundamental for me as a leader before asking others to change and improve. Importantly, this was not an exercise in self-loathing or defeatism; but an honest, objective and complete assessment with an eye to surfacing things going forward in the short and longer term I could and was committed to changing about my own action and what I was going to ask of the team.

So, what happened? We three met that Monday and reviewed the reality of where we were and the stakes. Then I calmly with complete candor described and owned my own failings, misjudgments, and what I was prepared to change. This acknowledgement stunned my colleagues and made them lose their defensiveness. We then decided together how we would manage the immediate crisis and make the fundamental changes in our capabilities, priorities, and processes to make the company stronger in the long run. We had much to do and it was not perfect. But the nose dive was halted, and we and the company emerged stronger and more capable than before. There is a picture of my two colleagues on my HBS office wall as a testimony to the importance of teams and what a good team looks like.

What are the takeaways? Look deeply and objectively at your own contribution to the problem. Be unemotional, tough minded, reflective and self-aware. Look to deep and systemic causes across time and not just the acute situation. Really difficult situations usually are compound in causality and develop over time. See yourself as a part of the problem and be willing and committed to change. Finally, have the courage of candor and be willing to authentically and with conviction acknowledge your gaps and commitment to change to those most central to solving the problem with you.

September 30, 2013
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