Jill Geisler: Being positive and solving problems are not mutually exclusive

April 30, 2024 4:51 pm

We want our leaders to be positive forces for good. But what happens when they prefer to deal with only the positive aspects of the job and avoid the negative? An hfm reader recently suggested this scenario might be worth exploring in a column.

Indeed, it is.

The reader described working with two nonprofit leaders who excelled at championing the cause in the community and motivating staff but seemed “incapable of or had such utter fear of conflict [both were very introverted] that little cancer cells grew into energy-sucking, mission-threatening tumors in the organization.”

This comment raises an important question: How can a leader be a positive representative, while carefully and diplomatically dealing with inevitable problems?

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s jump in and take a closer look to identify how to remain a positive, problem-solving leader while not shying away from negative issues that are bound to arise.

Accentuate the positive

First, it’s great to hear that the executives described by the reader know how to tell the best possible story about their organizations and their missions. That’s especially important in healthcare’s mission-driven organizations, but it can apply to any field, because many employees are intrinsically motivated by a desire to do good. The store clerk who doesn’t just point you toward an item you’re seeking but walks with you to make sure you find it takes a special pride in personal service. That’s worth talking about — to the public and to the staff. When teams make progress, overcome obstacles, beat competitors or receive praise, it’s important for leaders to broadcast it — and give credit where it’s due. That may seem obvious, but I assure you there are managers who miss those opportunities. Don’t be one of those managers.

Address the elephant in the room

At the same time, recognize that your team scrutinizes everything you say. And if they know there are unresolved problems in the organization, your upbeat, optimistic cheerleading can ring hollow. If you haven’t met goals on diversifying your staff, if wages have been frozen, if attrition seems needlessly high, if people are concerned about silos or if there’s disruption in the marketplace, your people are wondering why you’re not addressing that. They may be applauding as you extol the good stuff, but in their heads — and in conversations with each other — they’re saying, “Yes, but.”

That’s especially the case if they’ve brought any of these issues to your attention, and they don’t see any changes. You may have been working diligently behind-the-scenes on things, but how do they know that?

This is why it’s important for leaders to be positive problem solvers, both in what they do, and in how they communicate about it.

Aim for the intersection of optimism and realism

Let’s say you’re addressing your team’s good performance in the quarter. You’ve exceeded your budget targets, but people had to put in many extra hours because of staff departures and unfilled positions. When you face the group, I suggest you lead with the best news — and with gratitude: “Thanks to all of you, we’re one of the best operating units in the company. We should all be proud of that because we know what it took to get here.”

Expand on that positive story. Share rich, specific anecdotes about staff members’ contributions. (Don’t leave anyone out.) Show your gratitude.

But then, don’t be afraid to add something like this: “Now, let’s be candid. Hard work pays off. But it shouldn’t have to be this hard. We couldn’t fill our open positions as quickly as we hoped, and that meant extra work for all of you. I want to tell you now, as we celebrate, that I’m reviewing our hiring process so we can move more quickly from this point on. It’s on me to make sure we don’t face this situation again. I promise to keep you posted. I know your work ethic, so when you share concerns, I need to listen and act.”

What happened there? You started with the positive. You gave plenty of detail about the good news: The what, the who and the why. And then you pointed out the elephant in the room. You let your frustrated staff know that they deserve better — and that they’re going to get it from you. You also let people know it is okay to complain to you, and you reminded them of the value of their work. You took your team to the intersection of optimism and realism. That’s where hope and possibilities live. That’s where you can be a positive problem solver.

Apply one on one

For good managers, many optimistic and realistic conversations happen at the one-on-one level. You may have a staff member who deserves a promotion. But you have no open spots, and you’re not sure when that time will come. You still owe it to that employee to tell them how highly you think of them. So share the reality of your staffing status, while making it clear that you won’t make a promise you can’t keep. You can’t promise something immediate, but you will put them on your radar for future growth. Underscore that by scheduling monthly check-ins to see how they’re doing.

Again, you’re optimistic about their potential and realistic about your staffing limits. The offer — and delivery — of monthly conversations proves you aren’t just flattering and then forgetting them.

Achieve balance

The “positive-only” execs who prompted this column were described as introverts. That may be just a coincidence. I know plenty of extroverts who are conflict-averse, too. Personality types of all kinds need to think carefully about how they frame their messages. Extroverts are more likely to ad-lib, and introverts can do better with preparation. In any event, a commitment to authentically tackle the tough stuff is what counts.

Never forget the power your words carry. Assume your team is hungry to hear about challenges and solutions. To build credibility, get past your queasiness about discussing uncomfortable topics. That way, your cheerleading for the good stuff can be fully appreciated.

You know what I always say: The most important thing leaders do is help others succeed. You do that by being a positive problem solver. 

[1]. Geisler, J., “8 ways to lead a team, not a silo,” hfm, November 2023.


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