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Whose problem is it anyway?

BEING THE LEADER doesn't make you one. Why? Because leaders don't automatically receive respect from their group members and peers. It must be earned, and in order to do so, a leader must have a positive impact on the direction of his or her group members. This often requires the use of behavior modification skills.

* Leader skills. Effective group leaders actually require two sets of skills. The first set involves the skills of a task specialist who can meet the organizational needs of productivity, planning, scheduling, budgeting, and resource allocation.

The second set involves the skills of a human relations specialist who can identify with and meet the needs of the group. These skills are most challenging to learn because the needs of the group vary with each member and involve their individual personality characteristics (e.g., interests, attitudes, needs); job characteristics (e.g., task variety, responsibility); and work environment factors.

* People problems. Behavioral problems arise when the needs of an individual member conflict with the needs of the organization or the group. As a group leader, much of my time is spent trying to solve people problems. I've found that the traditional behavior modification techniques of positive reinforcement, extinction (absence of reinforcement), avoidance learning (escape from unpleasant consequences), and punishment are often only short-term fixes to problems.

Often members of my group would unload their problems on me. I would listen carefully and provide solutions and advice. I expected them to welcome my insight and implement my solution immediately, but the problems were rarely solved. They reappeared in identical or varying forms, almost in predictable cycles.

* Where did I go wrong? First, I failed to allow the employee to accept ownership of his or her own problem. Second, I failed to listen actively with understanding, empathy, and acceptance to the employee's concerns. Third, I failed to teach the employee how to solve his or her problem using the decision-making process.

Owning the problem. When a group member legitimately owns a problem, he or she exhibits behaviors that indicate that his or her needs are not being met. (It only becomes my problem, legitimately, when the behavior of the member prohibits me from getting my needs as a leader met.) To encourage a member to accept ownership of a problem that is legitimately his (or hers), I must act primarily as a listener, a counselor, and a sounding board to facilitate the other's discovering an acceptable solution. My role is passive.

Listening skills. As a problem-solving facilitator, it's important that I encourage open communication and trust. To do this, I need to avoid certain "roadblocks" to effective communication. "Roadblocks" include judging (e.g., criticizing, diagnosing, name calling), providing solutions (e.g., ordering, moralizing, advising), and avoiding the member's concerns.

Although I thought I was a good listener, I had much to learn. There are three skill clusters identified with active listening: attending skills, following skills, and reflecting skills. Attending skills involve the effective use of body language, motion, and eye contact and a non-distracting environment. Following skills include "door openers" that encourage a member to talk, such as infrequent questions, attentive silence, and non-verbal encouragement. Reflecting skills allow the listener to restate the feeling and content of what the speaker said.

Decision-making process. With regular practice, I am learning how to guide members through the decision-making process. There are six steps in this process, and, to be successful, the employee with the problem must be actively involved in each:

1. Identify and define the problem.

2. Identify alternative solutions.

3. Evaluate each solution.

4. Determine the best solution given the current facts.

5. Implement the best solution.

6. Assess whether the action corrected the problem.

* Leaders are not problem solvers. Effective leaders don't solve problems; they see that problems get solved through the creativity and innovation of their workers. I still catch myself from time to time using communication roadblocks and trying to advise, judge, or provide solutions. By solving a worker's problem myself, I can count on it resurfacing down the road. Effective behavioral modification is a continuous and time-consuming process, but it's a precious investment.

The author is laboratory director, Northside Hospital, St. Petersburg, Fla., and adjunct professor, University of South Florida, Tampa.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Hendrix, Bonnie
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:705
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