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Leadership Lessons: No Holy Grails, Silver Bullets, or Panaceas

We’re addicted to the search for THE answer to our problems. Good answers aren’t good enough. We want THE answer that will solve a particular problem in every situation. A suite of solutions that can solve the problem most of the time is judged as grossly inadequate.

To make things worse? THE answer must be easy to implement. If it takes effort, deep thought, or lots of work? Then it can’t ‘by definition’, be THE answer.
The problem arises when someone, especially an expert, responds to our query for THE answer, with the disconcerting, “No such thing exists!”. This isn’t acceptable. They’re the expert, they should know THE answer. Especially if we’re paying them to solve our problems. (Can you spot the irony of our response? If they’re the ‘expert’? Maybe they know whereof they speak?)

It’s both easy and embarrassing to be able to point my finger at everyone in this discussion, including myself, you, and the grump sitting down the hall. We all seem to have this annoying tendency to believe that someone must have THE answer, and for reasons we don’t understand, they are keeping their wisdom from the world in general and us in particular.
This crystallized for me after a presentation on ‘Dealing with Difficult People’, this time I was not the presenter, but I was an active spectator. An audience member asked what to do when they have to deal with someone who is impervious to all of the identified techniques. The speaker reiterated all of the various things we can do to affect someone’s behaviour, or to find common ground and the response was, “Yes! Yes! I know all that, and I do all that! But this person is still a problem. None of this works. What else can I do?”
The speaker replied honestly, “Sometimes nothing is going to work to fix a people problem, when the person at the core of the problem, is determined not to be fixed. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to arrive at what we want.” This answer was unacceptable to the audience member, and I’ll admit, as a self-professed problem solver, this answer also rubs me the wrong way. Yet, I have been asked similar questions with respect to Change Management, and my ‘expert’ response is exactly the same, “Sometimes there is nothing we can do to arrive at what we want.”

An example of such a Change Management question? “How can we get people to go along with this Change, even though it’s not in their best interest – and there’s nothing we can do to make it be in their best interest?” An example of such a situation? Laying off 300 people. Short of giving all of them a full salary until their retirement there’s not much we can do to make them like this turn of events. There’s no ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ because the problem isn’t where we think it is. (more on this below)
All of these objections to searching for THE answer does not mean we should not constantly be looking for BETTER answers. There’s nothing wrong with searching for better solutions to replace solutions already in use. In some circles that’s called Kaizen, Japanese for the ‘continual improvement of processes’. Being satisfied with any one solution is the first step towards stagnation, but the notion that there exists a perfect solution to any problem, one that we never need look at again, is the final step towards madness, or at least a waste of good resources.

A simple technique to continually improve a process is to examine constantly how other organizations are doing what we’re doing. Chances are better than good that they’re not doing it the way we are, and equally good that either our choice of action or their choice of action – is better. If we examine ten other organizations, it’s very likely that one of them is doing it better than we are – we can then, if we wish, decide to improve our process accordingly.
Incrementally better solutions are always within our grasp. One of the problems with this notion that perfect solutions exist, is that we ignore readily accessible, though less perfect solutions while searching for THE answer. When dealing with difficult people speak softly, make no sudden moves, don’t argue, don’t interrupt, etc. These are all good techniques, worth practicing, even though they’re not perfect.

Part of the Silver Bullet issue, this search for the perfect solution, is how we’re perceiving what is going on. It’s not so much that there’s ‘no silver bullet’ to fix the problem, it’s that there isn’t really a problem – except in our perception and expectations. In our Change Management layoff example, there’s nothing fundamentally ‘wrong’ with how people react to being laid off, or any other Change for that matter. If there’s anything wrong, it’s that we think there’s a way to make them feel different about losing their job.

Likewise with the original, “Dealing with Difficult People” situation, it’s the entirely possible that the person who’s being difficult has all the right in the world to be difficult. Consider the following; If you were working for Gaddafi, would you be a ‘difficult’ employee? Would you have a right to be? What could he do to make you more submissive/compliant? I hope your answer was ‘Nothing!’.

Many of the quests for Holy Grails, Silver Bullets, and Panaceas originate in unrealistic expectations. There is no way to make everyone like us (what gives us the notion they should?), there’s no way to calm someone down who’s angry about abysmally poor service (should they enjoy poor service?), there’s no way to get someone to embrace a Change that’s not to their benefit (being laid off isn’t something we’d choose to have happen). Sometimes THE answer is to change our perceptions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

© 2015 Peter de Jager – Reprinted with Permission.

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