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Solutioners are from Mars, Supporters are from Venus

Solutioners-are-from-marsRecently, I was asked to facilitate a team-building session for a group of directors.

It started with the normal “storming”, “norming” and “forming” that takes place when teams form. But then I had a huge AHA – a major breakthrough that, for some reason, has eluded me for quite some time.

In this meeting, there were nine directors who collaborate with each other across projects.  One of the directors, let’s call her Mary, began to explain how her team members were struggling to get their deliverables done on time. One particular customer, she explained, was beginning to get a little frustrated with their inconsistencies.  As soon as Mary finished describing her challenge, one of the stronger directors on the team, we’ll call him Joe, responded with his idea: “Well, can’t you work around the issues this way?  Shouldn’t this solve the problem?”

Joe continued to explain his ideas and approach.  He was talking for about 45 or 60 seconds before Mary deftly interrupted him and started explaining to him why she was frustrated and continued to explain her challenge in more detail.

Mary and Joe started talking at each other in  an extremely painful conversation.  At some point other people in the room said, “Hey guys, do you see what’s happening?  You’re talking at each other.  You haven’t heard one word that the other person has said.”

I think we’ve all experienced that.  We’ve all faced a situation when we’ve seen two people talk at each other.  Until they feel heard, they can’t hear the other person.  This is not a new concept.

We asked Joe, “What did you hear Mary say? Did  you hear her?  Because she didn’t think you heard her.”  In response, he effectively repeated some of the words that Mary said.  “So you’re having quality issues, and you’re missing your commitment so you’re getting beat up.”

We then turned to Mary and asked, “Is that what you said?” And she said, “No, that’s not what I meant.”  This went back and forth a couple of times. We’ve all been there.

And then I had the AHA!

Look at what really happened here.  Mary was sharing her situation.  She accepted ownership for the situation, and even though she was struggling a little bit, she wanted to work through it.

Joe loves solving problems. He wanted to share a solution. That’s his job! He immediately tried to help Mary solve this problem by offering her solutions.  But Mary didn’t want him to solve it for her.  Rather, Mary was just looking for people to provide support. Mary wanted to hear, “That’s got to be painful. Is there something we can help you with?”

Supporting vs. Solutioning

Many times when a colleague (especially a peer or direct report)  first shares a challenging or frustrating situation, they are  looking for your support.  They don’t want to be perceived as “giving up”,” out of ideas”, or relinquishing ownership for the situation.

There are other times when the individual may truly be asking you to step in and help solve the problem. They may feel they are in over their head. They need your help to find a solution.

What Joe did was fail to ask, “Do you need help? How can I support you?” He assumed the way he could support Mary was to give her a solution.  This approach made Mary feel insecure because she felt like Joe was going to take control of the situation and undermine her authority. It may have even made her feel stupid.

I think back to two leaders within my own company, both of whom have an affinity for solution mode regardless of what you want to talk about.  If you approach them to talk about how bad traffic was on the way to work, they don’t say, “Oh yeah, I ran into bad traffic too.”  They will actually say, “Did you consider taking a different expressway so you don’t hit traffic?”  They’re actually giving you alternatives to which you might go, “You’ve got to be kidding!  I’m not looking for alternatives! I know how to get to work.”

If you take two people who live in solution mode and put them together, they may struggle to understand who owns what and how to collaborative more effectively.  They both assume they personally own and are accountable for solving the problem because that’s how they’re wired.  Although they might have good problem solving skills, solutioners can make others feel like they’re not as good at their job or they’re failing because the solutioner had to grab ownership of the problem and solve it.

Unlike solutioners, supporters are not pulling ownership and accountability away from someone, which makes it safe to interact.

My current thinking is that if you take a solution person and a support person and put them on the same team, then they tend to really complement each other. You have to be careful, though, about putting two strong solutioning individuals together, especially if they don’t know how to throttle it or are unaware of what they are doing.

Bottom line, when you interact with your team or a colleague, I’d be aware if they are asking for you to be in support mode, or actually solution mode. This can help you be more effective at setting the team up for success!

Mars vs. Venus

I recently shared these thoughts with several colleagues who validated my thinking. One of them chuckled and said I just  summed up the book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” (The bestselling the book that explains that sometimes all your partner really wants is for you to simply listen and be there for them.) This really made the concept hit home, and in fact, it helped me out at home too!

Do you have any solutioners on your team?

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Category: For Practitioners, Team Dynamics

  • Rodog

    Bob,
    I think this is a really good topic, and one that I personally struggle with. Many times I will have colleagues or even my spouse say that they feel intimidated, defensive or even less capable, and not really comfortable coming to me to discuss issues. I always thought that it must be my delivery, but this makes me think that in many instances people are looking to be heard and sometimes validated as they try to drive to a solution. Even though you have the best intentions, providing an answer is not always the best answer..

    thanks..

  • B_Zimmerman

    Someone just shared this youtube video entitled “It’s not about the nail” that is both hilarious and supports the point of this post. Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg

  • Tanya Andresen Wojcik

    I think this article could have been written for me ;-). Funny part is, I can see myself as the defensive one when someone unwelcomely solutions AND the person who regularly solutions for others. Gotta re-think solutioning for others without permission 🙂