Why “Problem Solving “ is a NO- NO

by Kathy Poehnert, M.E.D., Psych., PCC

Imagine this scenario:  A business team has gathered in a conference room to brainstorm about a problem that exists within their unit: maybe about inefficiency, or morale, maybe poor communication, or how to deal with a disgruntled client ….all typical  “problems” within an organizational setting.

As you imagine this, or even read these words: what is your brain focusing on, and what are you feeling?  Focus is on a problem– something that is NOT working, and when we focus on something that is  NOT working, many feelings and reactions may come up:  defensiveness, fear, blame, intimidation, inadequacy, judgement: most of which would be considered “negative” by  the majority of us, and which do not help us create an environment where the best solutions might occur. Our brain does not work well when dealing with these kinds of states, and, in fact, research shows that relationships (which is really what life/business boils down to) flourish, and are most creative and successful when there is a ratio of 5:1 of positive to negative interactions . (John Gottman-www.gottman.com)

The typical process of problem solving usually goes something like this:

  1. Define the PROBLEM
  2. Generate possible alternatives
  3. Evaluate and select alternatives
  4. Implement action

Sound familiar?


Why do we always focus on the problem?

We do this because of the Negativity Bias in the brain which is our evolutionary need to  be  constantly aware of threat (problems) in order to survive.  Makes sense, right?   Yes…this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, when dealing with fight or flight reactions coming from our Amygdala (the most reptilian part of our brain.)  But we are not fighting off wooly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers any more (although sometimes we may think so!)

In order to mitigate threat, as seen through the negativity bias, we figure we must get at the “root” of the problem in order to prevent it from happening again.  Logically, this makes sense, but one thing we know from brain research is that we are at our best and most productive when we play to our strengths (individual and organizational) and when we put our attention on the positive, we tend to create more positive results, feelings, outcomes, relationships, etc.  We also know that true change tends to require working from positives to tap the collective creativity of group energy.

If we know the above to be true, then wouldn’t it make sense to improve our workplaces, relationships, leadership skills by finding out what IS working, deconstruct WHY it is working, and then apply that information to improve the deficient areas?  Kurt Wright in his book Breaking the Rules addresses this, suggesting that we could ask several important questions when faced with a situation we would like to improve.

The following is an adaptation of his approach:

  1. What is working well? (on my team, my business unit, my organization, etc.)
  2. What is it that is making it work well? (uncovering strengths)
  3. What is not working quite right?
  4. What resources found in the answer to question #2 can be used to make it right?


This positive approach is also utilized in the Appreciative Inquiry Model (David Cooperider) which does not minimize or negate problems, but actually shifts the frame around which we see what is or is not happening in a given context., and helps attention to be placed on what we want, rather than what needs “fixing”.  It is easy to see how different the energy would be between “fixing what is wrong” to visioning what is “right”.  This approach can help build trust as well as energize… when focusing on the positive, collaboration increases and defensiveness decreases.

So the next time you are tempted to call your team together to try to get at the “root of a problem” you might try to get at the “root of success” by deconstructing what works well, thereby uncovering strengths, and apply that information to those areas you are looking to improve.  Just taking this approach itself will surprise your team because it is unique- you can then use that energy to improve, improve, improve!!!




To continue the conversation with Kathy, contact her today for more neuroscience-related tips for managing your team!