Problem-solving skills in leadership

Do you find yourself fighting fires on a daily basis? It’s time to sharpen your problem-solving skills to become a more effective leader.

What is problem solving in leadership?

What is problem solving in leadership?

To explain how problem solving relates to leadership, it’s best to begin with a basic definition. The Oxford English Dictionary describes problem solving as “the action of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues”.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) adds a little more color to this. It defines a problem as “the distance between how things currently are and the way they should be. Problem solving forms the ‘bridge’ between these two elements. In order to close the gap, you need to understand the way things are (problem) and the way they ought to be (solution).”

In the workplace, problem solving means dealing with issues or challenges that arise in the course of everyday operations. This could be anything from production delays and customer complaints to skills shortages and employee conflict.

For leaders, the objective is to bring clarity and purpose to problem solving in a way that makes sense for the organization. While the leader has the final say, finding solutions is a collaborative effort that should involve key stakeholders, including employees.

Untangle work with Workplace

From informing everyone about the return to the office to adopting a hybrid way of working, Workplace makes work more simple.

The process of fixing problems

Problem solving leadership should follow these four steps:

  1. Identify the root cause of the problem – do this through fact-finding and getting feedback from those involved.

  2. Brainstorm possible solutions – get ideas from as many people as you can to get a range of perspectives.

  3. Evaluate solutions – draw up a shortlist of workable options and choose the best one.

  4. Implement and evaluate your plan of action – communicate your solution with all stakeholders and explain your reasoning.

As businesses face increasingly complex challenges, some leaders are embracing what the MIT Sloan School of Management calls ‘problem-led leadership’. Instead of concentrating on managing their people, they inspire others through their enthusiasm to solve ‘cool’ problems. While this leadership style won’t be right for every situation, it can work well where innovation and entrepreneurship are needed.

Leaders who problem-solve effectively can improve efficiency, reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction and achieve their strategic goals. If left unresolved, however, problems can spiral and ultimately affect the overall health and performance of your business.

Why is problem solving important in leadership?

Why is problem solving important in leadership?

The importance of leadership problem-solving skills shouldn’t be underestimated. When you think about it, businesses are beset by processes and interactions that don’t work as well as they could. Having the knowhow – not to mention determination – to overcome such obstacles is vital to make workplaces better for everyone. In fact, a 2022 survey shows that problem solving is among the top five skills UK employees look for in a leader.

Learning how to solve problems proficiently can benefit your organization in many ways. It can help you:

Make better decisions

Being able to solve complex problems with clarity and a rational mindset helps with decision-making. It gives you the confidence to weigh up the pros and cons of each decision before making a final call, without jumping to the wrong conclusion. This ensures the choices you make are right for your team and organization as a whole.

Overcome challenges

No matter how tight a ship you run, you’re always going to come up against obstacles. Challenges are a way of life for businesses, however successful they are.

A leader with good problem-solving skills is able to anticipate issues and have measures in place to deal with them if and when they arise. But they also have the ability to think on their feet and adapt their strategies if needed.

Inspire creativity and innovation

Creativity is useful when trying to solve problems, particularly ones you haven’t experienced before. Leaders who think differently can be great innovators. But they also empower their teams to think outside the box too by creating a safe, non-judgmental environment where all ideas are welcome.

Encourage collaboration

A problem shared is a problem halved, so the saying goes. Successful leaders recognize that problem solving alone is less beneficial than problem solving with a team. This inspires a culture of collaboration, not just between leaders and their team members but between colleagues working together on projects.

Build trust

When your team members know they can rely on you to identify and resolve issues quickly and effectively, it builds trust. They’re also more likely to feel comfortable talking to you if they have a problem of their own that they’re struggling with.

If they’re worried about repercussions, they may avoid sharing it with you. Lack of trust is still an issue in many organizations, with 40% of frontline staff saying they don’t have faith in their leadership, according to Qualtrics.

Reduce risk

Being able to anticipate potential risks and put measures in place to mitigate them makes you better equipped to protect your organization from harm. Having good problem-solving skills in leadership allows you to make informed decisions and avoid costly mistakes, even in times of uncertainty.

Boost morale

Leaders who approach problem solving with positivity and calmness are crucial to keeping team morale high. No one wants a leader who panics at the first sign of trouble. Workers want to feel reassured that they have someone capable in charge who can steer them through times of crisis.

What problems do leaders face?

What problems do leaders face?

As a leader, you’re likely to face all manner of setbacks and challenges. In fact, you probably find that hardly a day goes by without some kind of issue cropping up.

Common problems faced by leaders often involve communication barriers, team disagreements, production delays and missed financial targets. To give you an example, below are three common scenarios you might face in the workplace and how to tackle them.

Conflicts between team members

Problem: Cliques have developed and tensions are affecting communication so your team isn’t working as effectively as it could be.

Solution: Settle disputes by encouraging open and honest communication among all team members. Establish roles where each person’s responsibilities and expectations are clearly defined, and hold regular team building sessions to promote unity and togetherness.

Outdated technology hampering production

Problem: Hybrid and remote staff don’t have the right tools to do their job properly, and can’t keep track of who’s working on what, when and from where.

Solution: Evaluate your existing technology and upgrade to newer software and devices, getting feedback from your employees on what they need (52% of workers say the software related to their job is dated and difficult to use). Use a platform with apps that allow teams to collaborate and securely access work information from anywhere.

Customer service complaints

Problem: Customer response times are too slow – your team is taking too long to answer the phone and respond to emails, causing a rise in complaints.

Solution: Establish standard practice for what to do from the moment a customer query is received. Automate repetitive tasks and enable your customers to reach you via multiple channels including email, web chat, phone, social media and text.

What problem-solving skills do leaders need?

What problem-solving skills do leaders need?

Problem solving is something we learn through experience, often by getting it wrong the first time. It requires continual learning, curiosity and agility so you develop a good instinct for what to do when things go wrong. Time is a great teacher, but leadership problem-solving skills can also be honed through workshops, mentoring and training programs.

Some of the key skills leaders need to solve problems include:

Effective communication

Problems can cause anxiety, but it’s vital to stay calm so you don’t transmit a feeling of panic to others. It’s important to establish the facts before clearly relaying the problem to key stakeholders. You’ll also need to inspire the people who are working on the solution to remain focused on the task in hand until it’s resolved. Sometimes, this may involve giving critical feedback and making team members more accountable.

Transparency is key here. When you don’t have open and honest communication across your organization, you develop silos – which can generate more issues than need fixing.

Analytical insight

Your objective should be to find the root cause of the problem. That way, you can find a permanent solution rather than simply papering over the cracks. You’ll need to assess to what extent the issue has affected the overall business by analyzing data, speaking to those involved and looking for distinct patterns of behavior.

Analytical thinking is also important when proposing solutions and taking what you believe to be the right course of action.

Promoting a culture of psychological safety

It’s a leader’s responsibility to create an environment conducive to problem solving. In a safe, open and inclusive workplace, all team members feel comfortable bringing their ideas to the table. No one feels judged or ridiculed for their contributions. Nor do they feel dismissed for questioning the effectiveness of long-established processes and systems.

Not playing the blame game

Mistakes happen.They’re a normal part of growth and development. Instead of pointing fingers when things go wrong, see it as a learning opportunity.

Although you need to identify the cause of an error or problem to solve it effectively – and give feedback where needed – it’s not the same as placing blame. Instead, work towards a solution that ensures the same mistakes don’t keep being repeated.

Emotional intelligence

One of the most important problem-solving skills for leaders is emotional intelligence – the ability to understand emotions and empathize with others. This is crucial when recognizing employees’ problems. An EY Consulting survey found that 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to greater job satisfaction.

If you approach a problem with anger and frustration, you might make a rash decision or overlook important information. If, on the other hand, you stay calm and measured, you’ll be more inclined to seek feedback to get a broader view of the issue.

A flexible mindset

Problem solving works best when you keep an open mind and aren’t afraid to change direction. Sometimes you’ll need to find a better or more innovative approach to overcoming challenges. A leader with a flexible mindset is always receptive to new ideas and other viewpoints.

It’s clear that problem solving is an essential skill for any leader to have in their armory. So, the next time you face a challenge, take a breath and embrace the opportunity to put your problem-solving leadership abilities to the test.

Keep reading

Was this article helpful?
Dziękujemy za opinię

Recent posts

Leadership | 11 minute read

What is leadership and why is it so important?

What is a leader? Are leaders the same as managers? Can you learn to be a leader? We explore what makes a leader and why good leadership is business critical.

Leadership | 7 minute read

Collaborative leadership: what it is and how it can bring your teams together.

Collaborative leaders believe in bringing diverse teams together to achieve organizational goals, solve problems, make decisions and share information. But what does it really take to be a more collaborative leader? We take a look.

Leadership | 4 minute read

3 lessons leaders can take from life

It's the authentic experiences they have in real life that define who people are and can shape how they lead. Here are three of the best examples.