Make sure you solve the right problems at work

Have you ever had a problem with another person at work? A co-worker who doesn't do her work. A boss who's never there. An employee who's constantly sick and spreading germs over the whole place?

It would be shocking if you haven't encountered at least one of these situations. (And if you're in that lucky group, don't ever leave that job!) But the pressing problem may not be what you need to fix.

I received an email from a general manager complaining about an employee who refused company-provided health insurance (because she "wants to spend her money on Disney"), and has now been sick for a very long time, coughing all over everything and spreading germs everywhere. Because she lacks insurance, she refuses to go to the doctor. The manager wanted to know if she should pay for her to see a doctor.

A difficult situation to be sure. Certainly, you can send a sick employee home, but this manager was hesitant to do so because she couldn't afford to have this particular employee get upset and quit.

I probed a bit more, and she responded, "I can't do that because no one will work with her supervisor, and they actually somewhat get along." Turns out that supervisor had been through six employees in rapid succession, and this is the first one who was willing to put up with her.

So, this is the real problem. When you have a supervisor working for you who's so horrible that no one wants to work for her, the solution isn't to coddle the one employee who is willing to do that. The solution is to fix the supervisor. Once the sick employee recovers, another problem will crop up because of this supervisor, and then another and then another.

Here's how to spot the real problem.

Look for patterns. In this case, the pattern is clear -- a supervisor cycling rapidly through six direct reports is a problem supervisor. In other cases, the problem isn't quite as clear. You may have to pay attention for several weeks or even months to discern a pattern. For instance, Bob's reports are frequently late. What do the late reports have in common? Well, it looks like Stephen travels a lot, and when he's out of town, he does a sloppy job on the data. Yelling at Bob for late reports will never fix this problem.

Work to solve the underlying problem. In this case, it's dealing with a horrible supervisor. With Bob's late reports, it's working to come up with a plan for Stephen to get the data cleaned while traveling, or perhaps transferring those responsibilities to Karen.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. What if Stephen reports to someone other than you? Obviously, you can't impose rules on someone else's employee, but you need the problem fixed. So, ask for help from Stephen's manager. "I've noticed that when Stephen travels, the data isn't done quite right. What can my department do to help make sure this doesn't happen?" This way, even though you're asking for help, it looks like you're offering help. Works like a charm.

Stand up to bullies. This type of problem often occurs because of workplace bullies. You have a horrible employee that even the boss is afraid of, so instead of fixing or firing the bully, everyone else is told to make nice and do what the bully says. This type of avoidance causes even bigger problems, including terrible turnover costs as the good employees leave as fast as possible.