Enterprise Software

Finding solutions: The true test of a leader

IT managers face a difficult challenge when workplace negativity begins to affect morale and productivity. Here is how one TechRepublic member battles pessimism by linking problems to possible solutions.

Editor’s note: TechRepublic Web editor Dana Norton is filling in for Bob Artner, who is away this week.

Judging by the discussion that followed last week’s column ("Have you crossed the border from useful candor into pointless whining?"), many TechRepublic members believe negativity in the workplace is a growing problem. How does an IT manager address the problems created by people who focus entirely on the negative?

TechRepublic member George Conaway offered an interesting solution: Meet the problem causing the negativity head on by offering an honest assessment followed by suggested solutions. And practice what you are about to preach.

Conaway has some interesting advice on how to battle pessimism. I agree with his theory that how you communicate difficult information to your staff is a true test of your leadership ability.

Consider this scenario: Your CEO has just delivered sobering news about a decline in earnings and has alerted the company that layoffs are pending. Would you allow the CEO’s announcement to be the only official discussion on the topic? You may want to call a department meeting soon after the company meeting in order to put the news in perspective and dispel any widespread misconceptions early on. In other situations, you might be the person who delivers the “bad” news for the first time. In either case, Conaway’s advice on how to tackle this tricky situation is valuable.

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Focus on the presentation
Conaway, project manager of application development for Sun International North America, attacks pessimism by focusing on how he presents negative ideas.

“When it comes down to professionalism and loyalty, there are no alternatives for the truth—only the presentation,” Conaway wrote.

Conaway knows that stopping negativity starts with him. To avoid a potential pessimism pit, he takes time to practice and evaluate his presentation when faced with a difficult situation or announcement.

Conaway said the key is to “…know your audience, practice your presentation, and be brief and to the point.” He also believes a key is to offer solutions or to ask your employees to help you come up with the answers to the problem.

“Pulling together as a team to brainstorm a problem and reach a resolution is one of the most satisfying feelings there is,” Conaway said. “These sessions must be structured…too many IT managers prepare a project plan before starting a job but don’t develop a plan before an employee meeting."

Part of Conaway’s planning involves rehearsal of his presentation, which is critiqued by his wife. She provides critical feedback and helps him identify “presentation hotspots” with comments such as “Oh brother,” “That hurt,” or “You’re in trouble.” The feedback allows Conaway to isolate areas in his presentation that, even if they are true, are particularly harsh or negative sounding.

To reduce friction and avoid fueling pessimism, Conaway puts a positive take on these “hotspots.” Conaway also uses a mirror to determine what his audience will see. “If you wince while looking at yourself, just imagine how others will react to what you’re saying.”

For Conaway, the best spin an IT manager can put on a problem is to offer solutions to the problem or seek suggestions from the team.

Own up to not knowing
Conaway believes that honesty is the key, particularly when you can’t come up with a solution to a problem. He suggested that you tell your employees, “I’ve determined [that] a problem exists and haven’t yet found a viable resolution. I need your help.”

Asking colleagues and staff for help is how Conaway throws in a dash of optimism to balance the lack of a solution and to combat negativity before it starts.

Yet even when he asks for help, Conaway offers preliminary resolutions to each problem. "Think of a slide presentation," he said. Which would you rather see? A presentation that only lists problems or one that lists problems coupled with possible solutions?

Conaway understands that offering resolutions is better than just pointing out the negatives. “Your audience should never have to ask, ‘Is there anything we can do about it?’” he said. “Most of the time it’s not our decision to choose which, or if, a resolution will be implemented. It is our responsibility to present resolutions.”

This is sound advice from a manager who has obviously thought through the process. There is a time and a place for off-the-cuff remarks; however, Conaway knows the value of preparation. He knows that the methods he uses to convey ideas can have an immediate and indelible impact on his team.

Also, practicing the delivery of a “negative truth” to iron out trouble spots probably does wonders for his credibility and perceived leadership abilities when the final version is delivered.

What are your thoughts?
How do you fight pessimism and negativity in your shop? Do you have any advice? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.


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