Employee engagement problems? Deescalate them with ‘What’s working?’



On a recent episode of Switch and Shift TV, Alan Kay and I discussed his method of improving employee morale by focusing on what works and (perhaps counter-intuitively) not even discussing what doesn’t work. As a guy who has been searching for and rooting out problems for years, this really caught me by surprise – so I asked him to write us a post on it. Below is his result.

I have admired Alan for years; his wisdom is why we invited him into our League of Extraordinary Thinkers in the first place. As you read his post, I hope you consider turning your process upside-down as he suggests. After all, if what you’ve always done isn’t working… perhaps it’s time to switch to a different way and shift your organization into high gear! – Ted Coiné


Are you suffering from people-problem fact-attacks? Check to see if you have these symptoms: your people can tell you in great detail what the problem is with employee engagement, empowerment, etc; they have the data to prove they are right; they have enough anecdotal information to substantiate that they have the ‘facts’ to fix what they have decided is wrong.

Whether your organization is relatively simple or complex it usually looks chaotic. You’ll have plenty of people – staff, consultants, etc. – telling you that there’s a crisis. Do we need to know the real problem? Yes, but only to clarify it. There will undoubtedly be problems, some of them a crisis. If you run IT at a telco and your system is down for an hour – it’s a problem, so fix it. On the other hand, a people system, e.g., poor morale or disengaged staff is a problem that can more effortlessly be fixed another way.

Whether your organization is relatively simple or complex it usually looks chaotic.

People-system problem analysis stops them from:

  • Listening to and thinking about creativity and innovation
  • Making decisions that move things forward – learning through taking action
  • Using their time efficiently

The people in your organization are always in production towards better outcomes for your clients. It just doesn’t always look that way.

Between the soft leadership (people engagement, empowerment, etc.) and the hard leadership (systems to improve capacity, revenue, profit, etc.) there’s opportunity. So, the problem – real or imagined – is between people. Our job is to help management and staff move beyond the problem analysis and start doing something. As William James said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

The people in your organization are always in production towards better outcomes for your clients. It just doesn’t always look that way.

1. Skip in-depth problem analysis. Counterintuitive to our experience Werner Herren said, “It is irrelevant to the solution, why the problem occurred.’ Take the problem seriously, not literally. That is, clarify the problem, but do not enter it.

2. Don’t rush to solutions. Solutions built on assumptions about problems usually lead to discussion about problems with the solution. People will make a half-hearted effort on the solution. Instead, you might want to ask what outcome they want, but without the problem present. Then…

3. Research what’s already working, i.e., focus on existing resources for making progress beyond the problem. Do this exhaustively across the system of staff, stakeholders and customers. Your people will a) notice they are not helpless, b) calm down so they can be creative, c) identify the resources that are there to begin to find solutions, and d) notice they have something, usually lots, in common. “Always address a person in his/her resources first.” Insoo Kim Berg*

4. Listen and let them come up with the solutions. Now you can ask, ‘Suppose the problem went away, what would we be doing instead.’ Do this exhaustively across staff, stakeholders and event your customers. Also ask, ‘What small steps can we take to seeing ourselves acting on the solution?’

This is not philosophical positive thinking. Nor is it problem avoidance.

What’s working is your research on the solution.

What’s already working is the platform for making change happen. It reveals resources for tackling the issues. It moves people from stuck towards a state where they can start thinking and acting on solutions.

*Insoo Kim Berg & Steve De Shazer first discovered that analyzing and diagnosing problems could be removed from therapeutic conversation without negative consequences for client outcomes. Surprisingly, to some, this works equally well in organizations.

More perspective on the Solution Focus approach at www.frymonkeys.com/blog

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Image credit- alphaspirit / 123RF Stock Photo

Alan is an internationally renowned strategy and change advisor and an author of two books on speeding up change. Alan's work is widely influenced by the theory and application of Solution Focus, an approach that enables real attitudinal and behavioral change within organizations. He asks better questions to help teams build on strengths, clarify goals, and start taking action. Building on his credentials as a marketing communications client-service and general manager for a multi-national advertising business, Alan established his busy consulting practice, the Glasgow Group. Since its creation in 1994, The Glasgow Group has served a broad range of sectors in North America and Europe including financial services, technology, telco, advertising, government, education and not for profit. Alan is a peer-reviewed member of SFCT and his work is featured in a variety of books and journals. His book, ‘Fry the Monkeys. Create a Solution,’ has been widely acclaimed. He teaches executives at the business school of York University (Schulich/SEEC), in Toronto.

  • William Powell

    Love this Alan. This is on point with one of my favorite books – The Power of Positive Deviance. It talks about focusing on what is working, even though the environment would dictate otherwise. Thanks for the great reminder!!

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