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Making Work Better

Updated on May 25, 2016

How to Become a Super Hero Problem Solver

You're usually a great employee, but having a bad boss is wearing you down and you're becoming a bad employee. You can fix your problems at work and be the stellar employee you are!

Have you ever had one of those jobs where you don’t think you can survive one more day because of a terrible boss? You’re a good employee but lately you feel as if someone has hijacked your career and is turning you into a terrible one!

Before you do anything drastic, like walking off the job (which is not good for your reputation OR your budget!) or hiring a hit man (talk about not being good for your reputation!), count to ten, take a deep breath and do some serious problem solving.


Your reputation matters. By problem solving effectively, you can find the solution that works for you and solves your problem without damaging your reputation. Caring about your reputation is not about “caring what people think” to the extent that you’re not a genuine person and don’t even know who you are. In fact, take note of how much you find yourself saying you don’t care what others think. It may be a defense mechanism you are using because you actually care too much.

There is a healthy balance. And, you should care about your reputation as a worker. Besides, there are ways to solve any problem at work by taking the high road.

Your budget matters. Okay, this probably goes without saying, but if you don’t take the time to problem solve, your stress may build to the point of taking the drastic measure of walking off the job, which may feel good temporarily but now you’re let without a steady source of income and possibly putting yourself and your family through unnecessary financial difficulty.


Steps to Problem Solving

  1. Know there is a solution. I know, it sounds like a huge contradiction. But the first step is to know that there is a logical, workable solution out there. You just don’t know what it is. At first it takes trust, but after you’ve had some practice, you’ll begin to see how it works and the next time you have an “unsolvable problem” you will do that important first step FIRST and more easily.
  2. Define the problem and write it down. Write it yourself or ask a trusted advisor to help you. (Trusted Advisor: someone you trust to give you good advice, to be honest with you and to not support any wallowing in negativity.) Whether it is you or your trusted advisor that does the writing, the problem should be described objectively, without emotion or judgment.

Here’s an example problem from an emotional, subjective viewpoint

I have the worst boss. I hate him. He makes me so angry. All he does is sit in his office. I can’t stand the way he treats me. He’s a jerk. Everyone hates him. I deserve better.

Follow these rules for describing the problem objectively:

4 Rules for defining a problem:

  • Be specific. Avoid vague statement like “I have the worst boss.” Explain why and provide descriptive details.
  • Don’t use emotional phrases like, “I hate him” because those statements do not define a problem that you can reasonably solve.
  • Quantify whenever possible. Instead of using phrases like “all the time” or “never” provide specific numbers of times. If it truly is never or always, then do your best to quantify how many times that is.
  • Omit any details about what others think. What YOU are experiencing is what matters because it is the only thing you can control.

Here’s an example:

Here’s the same problem, broken down into solvable problems by digging deeper for specifics and taking some time to identify what the problem actually is:

My problem at work is with my boss.

  • He leaves his office only to go to lunch or to meetings, stopping maybe 1 or 2 times a week to chat briefly with whoever is nearby. I talk with him personally about 1-2 times every two weeks.
  • I cannot recall even one time that he has told me I am doing a good job.
  • I have on more than one occasion gotten negative feedback via email with sparse guidance on how to improve.
  • I haven’t had a raise or a performance review in over 2 years.
  • At least 3 times I have requested to meet with him (via email because he says that’s his preferred method of communication) and he takes 3-14 days to respond or doesn’t respond at all, then puts me off or reschedules the meeting.
  • When we do meet he says he will look into things and get back to me. So far, he has yet to keep any of those commitments.

There is one statement made in the emotional, subjective version above that is absolutely true and completely objective:

  • YOU DO DESERVE BETTER! Now let’s get back to the next step in problem solving!

Brainstorm solutions

Here again is where you can choose to have a trusted advisor work with you. Now that you have the problem defined and broken down, take each main part (if there is more than one) and write down solutions that are within your control. Because the specific example we’ve used here is fairly common, let’s address this one specifically and identify potential solutions.

To sum up: Your boss is unavailable, gives limited feedback and performance coaching, little positive reinforcement, and often does not keep commitments to meet with you or respond to your concerns.

Potential Solutions

  1. Communicate directly with your boss to address the problem. In this scenario, we are assuming that you have made several attempts to communicate directly with your boss. To be honest, this is where most people fail. They either lack the courage to have the conversations or they lack the communication skills to have the conversations. Often, people have the conversations but sabotage themselves by not being prepared. The truth remains that you must first have a direct conversation—sometimes more than one—before considering other solutions.
  2. Have the conversation, but make sure you are prepared.
  3. If you need help mustering the courage, there are plenty of online articles (like this one) that can help you or if your have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) you may be able to get free counseling to help you prepare.
  4. To develop the communication skills, a counselor can also help with that and there a many great books on the topic.
  5. You can also watch for my next article on this topic, “Courage, Clarity, and Consideration: How to Win Friends and Influence People with Criticism.
  6. Once you are confident that you have made a good faith effort to communicate well (with courage, clarity, and consideration), you may have exhausted this solution and need to consider other solutions.
  7. Take it to a higher court. If you can’t get through to your boss, take it to your boss’s boss. BUT, take the high road in doing so. Here’s how I recommend doing this:

When you’re meeting with your boss for perhaps the 3rd or 4th time with no results conclude the meeting by saying, “It seems our communication with each other has broken down and I don’t feel the problems are being solved. I’d like to get [his boss’s name] involved and maybe the 3 of us can make progress together. I’ll reach out via email and keep you in the loop.” This is the highest road you can possibly take and you’re doing so by not going behind anyone’s back but being straightforward in your intentions. It’s important to practice this with a trusted advisor because you don’t want it to come across as a threat.

Monitor yourself and guard against just wanting to be right or proving your boss to be wrong. Don’t turn it into a power struggle. You want to be confident that you want the best for everyone involved. After all, you could be helping your boss to become a better leader! …as long as you don’t back him into a corner and put him on the defensive.

Polish up your resume. Let’s face it. Sometimes the organization or the work environment just doesn’t support this type of effective complaining and problem solving. But, the best organizations do! If you’re confident you’ve taken the high road to solve your own problems, but you are not getting results and you believe it’s time to move on, then polish up your resume and use every spare moment to look for a new job. The best organizations would support you in that. Yes, it’s true that some employers have been known to fire their employees when they find out they are job hunting, which is just ignorance on their part because it’s an opportunity to find out how you can do better as an employer.

And, now that you know what you’re looking for in an employer as you interview with other employers, ask questions about the organization’s culture and leadership style, performance management and review processes, and turnover rate. Their answers will give you a clue as to whether or not you want to work for them.

When you land that great job with a great organization

Give proper notice according to your current organization’s policies and continue your usual strong performance up to the very last day. Don’t let your boss’s bad behavior turn you into a bad employee.

And now, you are back in the driver’s seat and in charge of your career!


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