How To Differentiate—And Solve—People Problems Vs. Process Problems

The move to hybrid and remote work has made the challenge more complicated. Here are the new ways to handle it.
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As a leader it can be difficult to diagnose the causes of problems on your team. Is it a problem with the way your team is working, aka a process problem? Is it an issue with people’s abilities or their relationships, aka a people problem? Or is there even a problem at all and the issue is with a leader’s visibility into what’s happening?

For remote and hybrid teams, it gets even harder, and small issues can quickly metastasize into something that wastes valuable time, attention and emotional energy. When you aren’t together in person, teamwork challenges are compounded by time, distance and a lack of subtle social cues that give essential insights into how people are doing.

Check your biases

One of the first things that gets in the way of quickly getting to the core of a problem is our own human nature. There’s a common cognitive bias we all suffer from which means we too easily jump to the conclusion that most issues are people problems.

Social psychology’s “fundamental attribution error” describes a tendency to overemphasize personal characteristics when judging other people’s actions and ignoring situational factors, while explaining your own actions through situational factors more than your own personal characteristics. For example, if someone repeatedly forgets to update the team on a project we will naturally assume it’s because they are lazy, forgetful or inconsiderate. Where in fact they may be overwhelmed, distracted or perhaps don’t even realize that project updates are expected.

The fundamental attribution error leads to many workplace issues being seen as insurmountable people problems. In reality, if you dig deeper there is often an underlying situational or environmental cause to the issue.

All problems are people problems

People Problems are issues stemming from the individual members of a team and how they relate to each other. There may be friction between team members, cultural issues, lack of commitment, unhealthy relational conflict or more.

All of us struggle with issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, self doubt, etc. Or worries about health, finances and the future. All these problems are complex and impact how we show up at work. This can affect our ability to complete projects and collaborate effectively.

And because all problems affect people, all problems are inherently people problems. Blindly trying to fix problems by layering in more and more process, without considering the humans involved, is not the answer.

All problems are also process problems

Process problems are ones that stem from the organizational structure and the systems that people interact with every day. In modern organizations, processes can be explicit. But there are many processes that are informal and implicit.

During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the workforce saw a massive upheaval in the ways that teams operated. As teams went remote, they lost many of the informal processes that held organizations together; people started to feel disconnected from their colleagues and lacked the information they needed to make good decisions. The processes had broken down.

While people are often process-adverse because they fear or dislike bureaucracy, hybrid work is more complex and difficult. It is important to look at the teamwork processes which both help you get work done and feel the sense of belonging which leads to effective collaboration.

Taken to an extreme, The Toyota Way states that it is always a process problem. And to some extent this is true; when you diagnose from an organizational perspective, there is always going to be a bad process, or lack of process, that causes the breakdown, even when applied to the people problems described above.

Getting concrete with some examples

Every problem has a person and a process at its core, and recognizing how both of those elements contribute to the overall conflict is essential to ensuring that your organization is equipped to solve people problems while also building up the tools and infrastructure that will effectively support your teammates and prevent new problems from emerging.

Scenario 1: An employee doesn’t want to work with someone else on the team due to conflicts that arose over a project deliverable. Tensions are running high and the conflict is impacting other members on the team.

People problem: There is unresolved tension and a lack of trust which is making it difficult to get work done.

Process problem: The root cause was that there is no process that ensures the right stakeholders are involved in a project, information is generally shared in an ad hoc manner and often late in the project’s life cycles. This leads to a fractured relationship which continues to plague collaboration.

Solution: As a team, define principles for how to work with each other, setting clear expectations for how to share work in progress, and how to provide feedback. Be explicit who needs to be involved and when. Set up templates and touchpoints to avoid these processes adding friction to projects. Separately, coach employees on how to both give and receive feedback effectively.

Scenario 2: Colleagues working in the office seem to get more recognition, attention and support than their team members who work remotely.

People problem: Your leadership team pays more attention to work that is more obvious and present—an “out of sight, out of mind” issue.

Process problem: There aren’t systems that exist to create equity in how people share progress such that the company recognizes everyone’s work across the whole hybrid environment.

Solution: Institute written, async means for updating everyone on a project’s progress and success. Create inclusive opportunities to recognize and celebrate each other, such as a segment at a monthly all-hands where all the wins from the prior month are reviewed.

Scenario 3: A junior employee is unproductive. Their volume and speed of work is not at the level it needs to be to consistently drive results.

People problem: The employee waits too long to ask for help when stuck. On remote and hybrid teams, it’s important to set the expectation that everyone is responsible for unblocking themselves.

Process problem: The team needs to lower the barrier to asking for help, so the stakes don’t seem so high.

Solution: Have recurring weekly team meetings with an agenda topic to discuss challenges and blockages, to learn as a team and model good behavior. Then do daily async check-ins with a prompt to share what is blocking you, so people can “raise a hand” and easily ask for help.

A final word

Bad processes become bureaucracy, but good processes create the foundation for effective teamwork. On remote and hybrid teams it’s even more important to make sure you have the mechanisms in place that help you build trust, create transparency and communicate priorities. And with good foundations, you’ll find that in the end you will have fewer processes overall and will be able to keep your team feeling agile and dynamic while nailing goals.

People and process problems are inevitable, and tackling them with trust, grace and strategy doesn’t have to be a daunting challenge. By approaching these issues with an understanding of the nuance that often goes into these conflicts, and by being proactive about understanding the root causes of these challenges, your hybrid workplace can become not only a more efficient one, but also a safer and more collaborative environment in which everyone wants to work.

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