Are You Dealing With a Problem or a Pattern?

Dealing with a performance issue is a bit like dealing with a hip injury: it can feel like a real pain in the gluteus maximus. It can also change your perspective on managing people, particularly when you ask the question, “Am I dealing with a problem or a pattern?”

pattern

One of my clients—let’s call him Bob—met with me to talk about a performance problem he faced. He called it a “problem employee.” This employee was behind on work assignments, increasingly absent, and causing frustration within the team. To aggravate the issue, this situation was not new. Bob had been dealing with it for over a year. He had run out of patience, and he felt stuck.

Bob looked at his employee and saw a problem—this person was not performing. This led him to a simple, logical solution: poor performance meant the employee needed corrective measures.

At first glance, this might make sense. The employee was behind on work assignments, so the manager told him to speed up the work. The employee was absent, so the manager told him be present. It looked simple, but in this case the corrections did not work.

Alternatively, Bob could look at his employee and see patterns. He could look at the team as a system, and notice the different conditions influencing patterns within and among his team. First, Bob can observe patterns of similarities among the team with regard to skill and motivation. Bob can ask, “What is holding my team together?”

Second, Bob can observe patterns of differences, such as different relations, roles, and responsibilities within the team. With this he can reflect on the question, “What differences make a difference for this team?”

Finally, Bob could explore the exchange patterns about the flow of time, resources, information, and reward. Bob could ask, “How does communication flow within and around the team?” From this perspective, picture of the situation is much more detailed and possible next steps multiply. This means Bob no longer has to feel stuck. He can take action.

It was clear when Bob first arrived in my office that he regarded the issue as a problem. He had tried simple corrective measures twice before and had seen no improvement. This time he wanted to try something new. So that is what we did, we unpacked the similarities, differences, and exchange patterns currently at play. (For more about this approach, see the Eoyang CDE Model.)

Bob gained new insights about the situation, and ended up with many options for action. For example, he noticed similarities among the team members with regard to their skill and ability to do the work. At the same time, he also noticed a difference in connection between the poor performing employee and the rest of the team. This one employee was seated at a desk down the hall from the team and was often left out of informal conversations about projects.

Bob moved his employee to a desk closer to the rest of the team and observed immediate results. He continued to apply what he learned in our time together, and took many other actions based on his pattern-based observations. When I followed up with him a few months later, he told me that his approach to managing issues on his team shifted from problems that needed to be solved to patterns that he could influence. It did not mean that he and his team no longer faced challenges. What it did mean was that he did not have to stay stuck.

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