The Problem of Potential Problems
Alarmists are irritating. They push the panic button at the first hint of smoke. They see what might go wrong and yell fire. While you’re dealing with “real” issues, they’re dealing with things that might happen.
Reject the temptation to ignore “alarmists.” All problems were potential once. The land of leadership is the land of not yet and could be. That includes potential problems. Leaders consumed with current issues aren’t leading.
Four inadequate responses to “alarmists:”
- Agree. Issues are often over or misstated.
- Answer. Don’t give answers. Your answer suggests more potential problems to an alarmist.
- Minimize. Alarmists become more alarmed if you don’t make them feel heard.
- Ignore. Bury your head in the sand and you’ll get kicked in the butt.
One crucial concern:
Consider the source. Don’t waste your time with disengaged spectators. Ignore them politely. The future is never built by fixing issues from complainers on the sidelines.
Seven questions that expose potential problems:
When engaged participants bring up potential problems, explore don’t ignore.
- What danger do you see?
- How critical, on a scale of 1 to 5, is it?
- What is the issue behind the issue? Determine if potential problems are mis or overstated. Is the danger people or processes?
- What does a win look like? Look for alignment with values and vision.
- What action steps do you suggest?
- How much time, energy, and resources should we expend?
- How will we measure success?
Special warning regarding step five:
When you ask an “alarmist” for action steps they give assignments. They want you to do something. Sometimes you should. But, the problem they see is often the problem they should address.
Spend more time building the future
than fixing potential problems.
Leaders who are consumed with advancement and growth, often neglect the importance of preserving gains. Listen to engaged “alarmists.” They’re protecting progress.
How do determine which potential problems deserve attention?
I think step 4 is the key – asking how the issue is preventing us from reaching our goals, or how addressing it will progress us towards them, ensures people know to key in on what is truly important. Keeping the dialogue focused on mission critical also helps strip away the emotion that naturally accompanies an alarmist conversation.
An alarmist is like an alarm bell. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a false alarm. But just as fire fighters still show up to investigate, in a calm, reasoned and disciplined manner, so should leaders.
I’m impressed by your well thought out and logical insights. The false alarm illustration helps me think in positive ways about dealing with potential problems.
I love question #4. I find it’s so easy for people to say what they don’t want. It’s useful to let them get it out. But, asking, “What do you want,” revolutionizes conversations.
an alarmist wants you to acknowledge their fear – once you do that you can move to a solution with them as a partner. If you skip that step, they often will complain higher up the food chain.
Wow, when I read the four inadequate answers to alarmists the first three pretty much described and led up to the fourth.
YUCK!!!! Gonna take a big ole pass on those four.
What I am gonna do is try to understand, not be understood(Be-Attitude).
I am gonna LISTEN to them understanding why they are sounding the alarm is because they see something that is scary.
What if I take 5 minutes to really listen to them. Let them know they matter to me. Then instead of feeling no one is listening to them, THEY CALM DOWN. Then they do not keep sounding the alarm over and over and over till SOMEONE does listen to them.
Isn’t 5 minutes of listening better for everyone concerned than showing them I do not think what they are feeling has any validity?
Take care of the problem with 5 minutes of active listening or pass them on to tell their tale to others? Am I the Leader or not? Leaders in my world LISTEN! At least I DO! All I can really do is what I know is best in my gut and heart! You?
All they most likely need is for a person to simply, calmly sit down and LISTEN to them.
Fear is faulty evidence appearing real. If they are upset something is really bothering them.
On the other hand, MAYBE THEY ARE RIGHT Maybe Houston we DO have a problem! No down side to LISTENING to another person, NONE.
What if the tornado is beating down on the building but because I have determined this person is an idiot I do not listen to them! Who is the idiot then?
Crucial concern, NEVER treat anyone like a complainer on the sideline. If they SEEM like that to me WHO put them there? Did I decide that is how they fit into the game? No wonder they feel no one cares about them. How is that a way to look at another one of God’s kids?
THEY MATTER, their opinion matters, their contribution is a part of the whole. My business to make sure they get that.
I measure success by regularly checking in on clearly defined, team agreed upon goals to see how we are moving the rock. If we are moving the rock, keep duplicating the actions bringing those results. If not progressing turn over every rock in every field, including the left one, till the better way is revealed.
If I live with the world like a loose garment THEN when BETTER comes along I can easily adjust and adapt. If I get too attached letting go is eventual and much more difficult.
Truly Human Leadership…………BETTER! Till its not anymore!
SP back to the present!
Failing all that – get stuck in!
I had a few alarmist on staff in a previous job. I started early with my staff and told them, “if you raise a problem with me, I also want to hear a few solutions to the problem that you would recommend and why”. This moved those staff members from blocking results to participating in achieving results. Over time, risk management techniques were taught to the group so everyone could use tools to evaluate problems. In about 6 month, the lens the group used was more constant and sharper focused.
I also want to point out people in a group that have the “rose colour” glasses that move forward without identifying risks can be more dangerous. I found these members a tougher breed to adopt risk management practices.
Other lessons I have learnt ( sometimes the hard way) over the years.
– by having more view points, solutions will be more robust and more problems will be avoid
– staff members may have a different scale on acceptable risk, and acceptable risk may change from project to project. Identify what the acceptable risk is.
– You will always have to deal with people with different personality objectives “get it done group”, “do it right group”, “get along group”, “get appreciated group”. Identifying the person characteristic in the short term and balancing over the long term is key.
– avoid group think, if there is not a devil’s advocate in the group, you may want assign one for that risk meeting or project.
Thank you for adding to the discussion by giving your other lessons learned. You show a lot of wisdom in those lessons and I too will make a better leader when I apply your thoughts. Thank you!
I like the question about how critical the potential problem is. Another thing to consider is whether the “problem” and its solution will build up a leader or unify your team. Sometimes, it’s worth wading into these kinds of problems to push your team and develop new leaders.
I was discussing with my friend today on similar topic. My friend told about some people who are critical to someone.On the face, they speak politely, and behind they show different face. When we discussed deeply with interest. we found that alarmist/criticizers were fearful and less competent to those criticized. Few months later, criticized people got better options with better opportunities. So, we decided not to heed to such alarmists. In fact, when someone make false alarm against one, one should be happy. It is the symptom of one’s success and others’ fear.
I do not know, whether I am in tune with this post or not. But, I do feel that this is similar to this.
However, I still trying to explore the best option to deal with such alarmist effectively. Is it always good strategy to keep mum to such people’ alarm? Is it good strategy to behave politely to such people knowing everything?
I also feel that alarmist has potential to create any issue as potential issue. I need responses and comments from other readers to deal such problems and people effectively.
Two things that you hinted at that I would like to call out more clearly are:
Reporting Symptoms, without doing a more detailed analysis – Sometimes alarmists are focused on the symptom and not the causal factors – change often displaces the causes and symptoms of any system – so that by pushing change we may be moving things around. I usually ask them to perform some root cause analysis (ask 5 whys to start) and refocus their play against the source issue.
If this issue is a potential issue, how long is the fuse on the bomb: potential issues haven’t happened yet – we have a unique opportunity to get in front of the issue. Ask the alarmist to explain when the impact of his concern will be realized if we “do nothing” – that will get us to a point where we can make decisions about not only what, but when we address the risk.
Another great read thank you. I am married to an alarmist. His fear can sometimes keep us from doing anything. So working together we move along, in a more conservative way ; O) oh well.
Chickin licken and the sky is falling in. I confess I am prone to this from time to time, however the chronic alarmists are a blight- they create attention by seeming to have the companies interests (or somebody’s personal situation as can be found outside of the workplace) at heart – when in reality they create a living by deflecting attention from what they should be doing (helping build the future of the company) and their abilities (perhaps limited by their own inability to take pro-active and constructive action) – and pointing to the failings of others.
My favourite responses – “I’ve got it” or “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it, meantime let’s stick to the task at hand”. Usually short conversations. That said it’s a challenge to have the discipline and patience to turn these people around, and you have to as they do drag others down.
What’s the difference between an alarmist and a proactive critical thinking team member?
My first advice: Do not use the word “alarmist” when thinking about someone who raises a concern…
A few points of critique:
o “Don’t waste your time with disengaged spectators. Ignore them politely. The future is never built by fixing issues from complainers on the sidelines.”
Depending on the exact meaning, this advice could be flawed. I note both that an outsider’s perspective can be quite valuable and that a more intelligent outsider can often bring more to the table than a less intelligent insider. Judge issues primarily on the merits of the respective issues. (Further, it is basically a contradication of terms to ignore someone politely.)
o “But, the problem they see is often the problem they should address.”
While often true, is is also often impractical: “They” do not always have the leeway or authority to act, but need “you” to give a go-ahead, clear some time or money, formally assign discretion, or similar.
o “Spend more time building the future than fixing potential problems.”
This statement is too vague to analyze, but I note that fixing potential problems is often a requirement for even having a future. (Say in a software project where poor code maintainability will artificially increase development time by a factor of two a few years in the future, or a railway where breakdowns will cause severe disturbance in five years if maintenance is cut today—an error that can be increasingly seen at Deutsche Bahn in Germany at the moment.)
Thanks Michael. Much appreciate your added insights.
I’m with you especially on the value of outsiders. Over and over, I’ve seen that they see what insiders have grown blind to.
The “building the future” statement can include fixing the past. But, leadership is always about pushing into the future.