In a recent WorkLife podcast episode I listened to, the host, Adam Grant, made a statement that resonated deeply. He said, “Let’s ban psychological solutions to organizational problems.” That sentence felt like a 100-pound brick being dropped in my lap! He went on to list common examples that may be all too familiar to many of us – organizations applying employee-based fixes like mindfulness activities, emotional intelligence training, or strategies to avoid personal burnout, when really the organization has deeper rooted issues like the need to remove an abusive boss or diagnose ineffective and inefficient systems. And while I have written on emotional intelligence and avoiding personal burnout on this platform, I think Grant’s idea is valid and warrants exploring.
Numerous situational-based models of leadership apply a common framework of three basic variables of leadership: the leader, those being led (followers), and the environment. All three variables interact with one another, and all influence the degree of leadership effectiveness. Adam Grant’s comments demonstrate leaders’ tendencies to blame followers for organizational dysfunction, inefficiency, and lacking performance. Upon some reflection after listening to that episode, I found that I too easily fall into that mental bias. This is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which refers to our tendency to attribute someone else’s actions (especially failures) to internal factors like character and personality while we attribute our own behavior (failures) to external factors outside of our control. When leaders simply blame the follower variable within this triad of leadership, we get results like applying psychological solutions to what can (likely) be organizational issues, meaning leader- and/or environment-based matters. Leaders and the environment can and do contribute to organizational issues; the environment variable can include organizational context issues, too. As leaders, we need to take a broader view of the issue at hand, take ownership of it, and address it by considering all three variables (leader, followers, and environment) that may be contributing – not merely assuming employee failure, which we can easily do even subconsciously.
5 Considerations to Avoid “Psychological Solutions to Organizational Problems”
Below are five considerations, or strategies, that can help leaders prevent the fallacy of applying “psychological solutions to organizational problems.” These can help us better consider the impact of all three variables of leadership and to properly identify the source(s) of issues. Some of these considerations are simply shifts in perspective and attitude, which can help us reframe our approach to solving challenges within our organization.
Assume positive intent. In his book, Welcome to Management, Ryan Hawk quotes Indra Nooyi (former CEO of PepsiCo) and Stephen M. R. Covey (author of The Speed of Trust) when he writes, “Given our brain’s innate tendency to make assumptions, why not start with positive intent? …If we learn to assume positive intent as a start in any interaction, we’ll see the world in a different light. …Is there risk involved in assuming positive intent or leading with trust? Absolutely, there is. But…if we don’t trust people, how will we engage them, innovate, create, inspire, be a team? You can trust too much and get burned, but you can also not trust enough and you wouldn’t see the possibilities.” It can be easy to overlook the simple fact that everyone is likely doing the best they can with the tasks, conditions, and challenges at hand. With a reframe of assuming positive intent in our approach to organizational problems, we can begin to appreciate the broader context and not merely start with blaming ineffective, inefficient, or incapable employees.
Start at home. Rather than falling for the Fundamental Attribution Error trap and starting with identifying how others (employees) are contributing to organizational problems, let’s start by considering a different variable first – ourselves. How am I contributing to this issue? What personal behaviors, lack of behaviors, or blind spots are possibly contributing? We can demonstrate ownership by starting with ourselves first. Author, L. David Marquet (Turn the Ship Around! and Leadership is Language) states, “A leader’s job is to fix the environment where people have become disengaged; not to fix disengaged people.” I recommend when trying to address an organizational challenge, start with your desk and then make concentrically larger circles spiraling out from there.
Is this feedback? What we perceive to be employee-based failures could be feedback of deeper and/or broader problems. If employees are disengaged, as Marquet mentioned above, or reporting lack of motivation or sense of purpose, are these actually signals of environment or organizational issues? If employees are reporting higher signs of burnout, could it be an organizational failure to structure processes and employee tasks according to the Time Management Matrix? Feedback received from employees may be signaling other, broader issues to consider.
Identify the root problem. If we receive employee feedback as mentioned above, we need to conduct a deeper analysis of what is contributing to it. Reports of employee burnout, for example, does not simply mean that they need coping resources like mindfulness training or some organizational family day (common in military units). Kicking people out of the office at 5PM and forcing them to go home has good intentions, absolutely. But that does nothing to improve the broader problem of peoples’ workload, work capacity, or help them manage and accomplish projects/tasks better. Maybe certain organizational systems need to be corrected to help employees manage projects better so they can, in fact, depart at 5PM more routinely. Employee feedback or challenging trends are likely symptoms of a deeper issue that leaders need to explore. Conduct your own excavation site of the issue by doing research, asking more questions about this feedback, and sourcing ideas on ways you can help across the organization.
Remember that you’re always sending signals. Lastly, remember that our actions as leaders, no matter how big or small, are sending signals to our people. How we respond to employee challenges or organizational problems impact peoples’ commitment, psychological safety, motivation, as well as the team’s viability. If we consistently solve organizational problems with surface-level psychological solutions, we build a façade of organizational effectiveness and leader engagement that will not sustain. However, if we take these challenges seriously, show ownership, and diagnose the deeper root of them, we may be on our way to cultivating an effective, cohesive, and resilient organization and employees.
If you find this post helpful, subscribe to receive weekly email notifications of new content!