In a training course about “Transforming Communications” based on a book by Dr Richard Bolstad and Margott Hamblet we discussed viewing a problem from a for me initially strange stand point: Who is happy or not happy about the problem or situation? This defines the problem ownership.
A simple example, your neighbour has his stereo on full throttle and you can’t concentrate on your report which is due tomorrow. In this case you are not happy with the situation while your neighbour is oblivious about that. You own the problem.
In essence we are talking about communication problems. The aim of communication is that both parties don’t have a problem = are happy about the current situation.
In the example above you have a problem, now you can take the initiative to solve it. Disputes in the neighbourhood can become ugly when voices are raised. So, my first step is to calm down and then make my neighbour aware of my needs and how his music is effecting that. More likely to be effective than yelling across the fence!
What about a situation where it is the other way round? This is a bit more challenging because it requires me to acknowledge my action is causing a situation. I need to work on what I can change or do to remedy the problem. That doesn’t exclude any suggestion to the other party if I can see options for improvement there, too.
The most difficult situation is where both parties are unhappy. In this case we face a conflict. Conflicts can be divided into 2 basic categories, conflicts of needs and conflicts of value. Conflicts of needs like in my examples above can be addressed using conflict resolution techniques. Conflicts of value cannot be solved. Just take the belief system of 2 hard core religious people, say a Muslim and a Christian. If they have a conflict which is deeply rooted in their belief system, you cannot resolve it. You can help reaching mutual understanding but that’s it. Your own belief system has the potential to making matters worse. You will have made a wonderful job when these people talk about their conflict.
So, rather then owning a problem because it’s your task to do something about it, the person who is unhappy about the situation owns the problem. In a business context that means as a manager you need to give your staff the right to speak up if they own a problem. Even better give them the autonomy – if /where appropriate – to do something about it. They are more likely to come up with a solution where everybody is happy about because everybody in the team has the same right and responsibility.