When Not to Solve a Problem


Many leaders and consultants pride themselves on being problem solvers. In fact, many job profiles name problem solving as a required skill. But is there a scenario in your organization when you should not try to solve a problem? The answer to that is “Yes!”

Problems vs. Tensions

Now that I have your attention, let me backtrack on that answer a little. Many people attempt to solve “problems” that are not really problems. Sometimes we mislabel a tension as a problem, which gets us into trouble because you can’t solve a tension. A problem, by definition, has a solution, or at least a possibility of a solution. A tension, on the other hand, is something that will never get resolved. Instead, it needs to be managed. Leaders and consultants get themselves into trouble when they spend time and energy trying to solve a problem rather than manage a tension. Barry Johnson provides a very detailed and excellent description of the differences in his book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. He calls tensions, polarities.

Cultural Values in Tension

Let me give you an example that affects most organizations. Cultural values are often in tension with one another in any given organization. Cameron and Quinn discuss four major cultural values: Collaborating, Competing, Creating, Controlling. Every organization has and needs these values to a certain degree; yet, it is clear to see how they can be in tension. For example, the values of collaboration and competition sometimes oppose one another. How a leader manages that tension is a critical issue when it comes to developing a healthy organizational culture.

Imagine a highly collaborative organization that has a department leader who prizes competition as a value. She might see the competition/collaboration tension as a problem to be solved, desiring to overcome the collaboration with good competition, but such an approach would be a disaster. If she tries to solve the “too much relationship and not enough healthy competition problem,” she will not only fail, she will also do damage to the climate of the entire organization. On the other hand, attempting to manage the tension more effectively could lead to a more effective balance of the two values, improving the organizational climate and performance.

Managing Tensions

The ability to effectively manage tensions in an organization is a great skill for leaders and consultants to have. Here are three tips for developing that skill.

1) Learn to recognize the difference between tensions and problems. Problems are temporary and have possible solutions. Tensions are usually more permanent and can’t be “solved.” Problems have pretty clear upside and downside components. Each side of a tension has both upside and downside elements. Going back to our example, one upside of collaboration is people developing friendships and enjoying working together. A downside of that value may be that people are unwilling to point out poor performance. A downside of the competition value could be co-workers undermining each other’s efforts, whereas an upside could be that it spurs everyone to perform at a higher level.

2) Develop a common language. As with many other areas of organizational dynamics, quality shared language can perpetuate healthy culture. Carefully define and use phrases like “problem solving” and “managing tensions” throughout the organization. Language around values (which is often ground zero of tension management) should also be very clear so that everyone knows what positive and negative examples of each value look like. Don’t forget to define what too much of a good thing can be as well. That’s the point at which a positive value becomes toxic.

3) Get clarity on the right balance for your organization. Every organization has a unique balance of the competing values named above. Do you know what your current state is? Do you know what your desired balance is? There are tools available that can help you answer those questions. It is worth the investment of time and money to gain clarity. Doing so will help you devise strategies to ensure your best chance for organizational health.

Want to learn how to find and achieve the right balance of cultural values in your organization?


Attend “Tuggs” interactive lunch and learn on Thursday, Feb 18 from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

About Tuggs
Tuggs has over 20 years experience leading and developing people and organizations across a variety of industry sectors. His practical experience, coupled with his research expertise in cutting-edge learning theory and performance management, uniquely positions him to aid organizations in diagnosing performance gaps and opportunities, as well as in designing, developing, and delivering custom performance solutions. He holds an earned Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership with a Human Resource Development concentration. Mark is an experienced public speaker, learning facilitator, and researcher.