PROBLEM-CREATING VS PROBLEM SOLVING
BY MICHAEL NEENAN
Approaches to stress management usually focus on reducing or modifying workplace pressures and/or teaching individuals how to cope constructively with these pressures (e.g. Cooper and Williams, 1994; Quick, Quick, Nelson and Hurrell, 1997). In this article, I want to examine an aspect of stress that is frequently overlooked in the stress management literature: this is the process whereby some individuals create additional problems about their primary problems or develop pressures about pressures. Such individuals usually blame the workplace or others but, in fact, these problems result from their own creative ability to give themselves more problems than they started out with. This article will focus on the process and consequences of problem-creating and how this can be replaced by problem-solving which, if correctly applied, leads to fewer problems experienced both externally and internally.
Problem creation:1. Paul
Problems about problems are usually emotional problems about emotional problems and lead to counterproductive behaviour both in and out of the workplace (Grieger and Boyd, 1980) A spectacular example of this process occurred recently when I saw a client called Paul (not his real name). He worked for a large insurance company. His problems started one Tuesday afternoon when his manager asked him to have a report on her desk by midday on Friday. He immediately became angry when she was out of ear- and eyeshot: "As if I haven't got enough bloody work to do already!" He was consumed by his anger for the rest of the afternoon and little of his existing workload was dealt with. He took his anger home, provoked a row with his wife and was sharp with his children. He had little sleep that night as he was still angry towards his boss and felt guilty and ashamed of himself because of his behaviour towards his family. The next day at work he was very tired and still seething with resentment because of the extra work he had been given; also, he was still brooding on his 'despicable' behaviour from last night. He now had to grapple with catching up on yesterday's work and continued to feel anxious because he had not started on the report. Little productive work was accomplished that day as he said "my mind and emotions were all over the place".
He vowed to make some preliminary notes about the content of the report after the evening meal but, because he was so tired, he fell asleep in a chair while watching television. Despite sleeping all night, he said he did not feel refreshed the next morning. He had a busy day ahead of him but was continually distracted by his rising anxiety that he had to deliver the report in little over twenty-four hours and not one word had been written. That evening he decided to go for broke and worked through the night to produce the report. At work the next day he described himself as the 'walking dead' but delivered his report on schedule. However, that afternoon he had to chair an important interdepartmental meeting and kept stifling yawns as well trying to stop his head nodding and eyes closing. Over the weekend, instead of winding down Paul was on tenterhooks about the quality of his report ("I expect it's dreadful") and his chairmanship of the meeting ("probably thought I was on drugs or something"). Relief set in on Monday when his manager said the report was satisfactory and the feedback from the meeting was generally positive apart from his obvious tiredness. Even though Paul was more relaxed and could now focus on his work, he was very troubled as to how he had gone "out of control last week".
Problem creation: 2. Sue
Sue (not her real name) was angry with her boss and called him a "lazy bastard". She had worked for him for two years and described in great detail his inefficiencies, e.g. even though he received the mail first thing in the morning, he held on to it until late morning thereby preventing Sue from promptly answering the correspondence; he was slow in disseminating information from meetings that directly affected Sue and her colleagues; he was indecisive; he avoided tasks that demanded a lot of effort and usually delegated these. She said her anger towards her boss was the cause of her own low morale, diminished job satisfaction and often poor performance. She frequently made herself angry about her inability to stop being angry with her boss! At home, her husband often got fed up with Sue's complain-ing about her boss's behaviour. This led to rows with Sue getting angry with her husband for not being sympathetic to her plight. She would feel hurt ("My husband has let me down") and then retreat into sulking. Sue believed that she could only stop being angry when her boss stopped being lazy - "I hate him having this control over the way I feel".
In reviewing Paul's work record, he was prone to creating problems about problems and the aforementioned example was just the most extreme case to date. In trying to demonstrate vividly this process, I wrote on the whiteboard in my office 'Primary Problem (PP): completing the report by Friday', and then in a row after the PP, I wrote 'Problems About Problems (PAP)', e.g. anger, falling behind with workload, lack of sleep. Very soon the whiteboard was covered with Paul's succession of problems. Paul's response was, "I see it so clearly now but why didn't I just get on with the report when she asked me to do it?"
By using the ABC model of emotional disturbance (Dryden and Gordon, 1993; Ellis, 1994; Ellis, Gordon, Neenan and Palmer, 1997; Palmer and Burton, 1996) Paul was able to pinpoint the disturbance-producing thinking that triggered his disastrous week. I wrote the model on the whiteboard using Paul's answers to my questions:
A=activating event: asked to write a report
B=beliefs: 'She shouldn't be doing this to me when I've got enough work already. I'm not bloody well doing it!'
C=emotional consequence: anger
So why did Paul get into such an emotional tangle? By not dealing with the primary problem (some might call it a challenge or issue) when presented with it. Once he decided to avoid it or defiantly not do it, the problems about problems process started:
Paul: When you put it up there on the board, it seems so clear now. Writing reports is part of my job-my boss didn't really ask me anything out of the ordinary. I suppose she just asked me at the wrong moment and everything spiralled out of control.
Michael: Well, you let it spiral out of control because of that statement [pointing at the board] 'She shouldn't be doing this to me...' and what was it she was actually doing at that precise moment?
Paul: Asking me to do the report but I was pushing it away, hoping it would disappear.
Michael: And as soon as any individual starts to deny the reality of the situation, problems can start and then quickly escalate.
Paul: That's exactly what happened to me. The thing is though, I want to perform well under pressure because I'm looking for promotion. In fact, it's a funny thing but actually doing the report caused me much less hassle than avoiding it.
Michael: This is frequently the case: a difficult, boring or unpleasant task may take just an hour or two to complete but often individuals will spend hours, days, weeks or even longer avoiding it.
Paul: It's crazy when you think about it. I thought my boss was doing my head in with the report when all the time it was me.
In reviewing Sue's two-year anger at her boss, this revealed that she had not approached him regarding the issues mentioned earlier. This meant that her boss was unaware of her dissatisfaction with his managerial competence (or lack of it, as Sue argued). She said that she resented him and this attitude adversely affected her own job performance really didn't enjoy going to work sometimes". Sue's ABCs were written up on the whiteboard:
A=activating event: her boss's habitual laziness
B=beliefs: 'He shouldn't be such a lazy bastard! He should realise how inefficient he is and do something about it'
C=emotional consequence: anger
Sue was convinced that her boss caused her anger and the only solution to her emotional problems was for her boss to suddenly become efficient, be transferred within the company or sacked:
Michael: And then your anger would go.
Sue: Of course it would.
Michael: And if he stays your anger stays, so to speak.
Sue: That's right.
Michael: Let's try and understand your anger from another viewpoint. Now you've called him a 'lazy bastard' and stated that he shouldn't be that way but...
Sue:: ...that's right...
Michael: . ..but how long have you known him that way?
Sue: Two years. That's how long I've worked for him.
Michael: Given the fact that he's been that way for two years, should or should he not be that way?
Sue: [indignantly] He shouldn't be that way of course! He's lazy. I don't know what you're getting at.
Michael: Okay, let me put it another way. Now, you're undoubtedly female. How long have you been female?
Sue: All my life, of course. I think my husband would agree.
Michael: I'm sure he would. Now, what would you say if! said you shouldn't be female?
Sue: That's crazy. Of course I am. You need your eyes tested.
Michael: And why do I need my eyes tested?
Sue: Because you can't see what's in front of your nose.
Michael: So it would be pointless of me to argue that you shouldn't be the way you undoubtedly are. Now with your boss: does the daily evidence of the last two years show that he is, in your opinion, lazy or efficient?
Sue: Well, lazy, of course.
Michael: But you keep on demanding that he shouldn't be that way. What you're doing is denying the daily reality in your office.
Sue: Hmm. I've never seen it that way before and it does make sense the way you put it but am I supposed to tolerate his laziness then?
Michael: Well, you have done for the last two years. If! can convince you that you largely create your own anger about his behaviour - he doesn't control your emotions, you do -then you will be able to reduce your anger. Once this is achieved, you can look at ways you might be able to influence your boss to become more efficient. At the moment, you are all stewing and no doing. You can reduce the former and start the latter.
Sue: Okay, you've got me intrigued. How do I go about it then?
Bernard (1993, section III, p.!) states that "in order for you to think clearly and thus effectively handle stressful situations and solve practical problems, you first have to develop emotional control. Emotional self-management is a vital key to stress management" (emphasis in original). This is achieved by modifying or changing the ideas and attitudes that largely create our emotional and behavioural reactions to events. Thus Paul and Sue were taught the additional elements of the ABC model: namely, disputing (D) their disturbance-creating ideas in order to develop a new and efficient (E) emotional and practical problem-solving philosophy. Both Paul and Sue had clung to a reality-denying 'should': Paul's lasted several days while Sue's lasted for two years.
Homey (1950) spoke of the 'tyranny of the shoulds' which dictate how self, others or the world should be (e.g. 'I should be rewarded and respected for my hard work'). Of course, the word should is not itself either problem-creating or problem-solving; this is determined by the philosophy embedded within the word: in these case examples, shoulds that deny reality (as above) and shoulds that acknowledge reality (see next sentence). As Paul and Sue wanted to manage the pressures of the workplace more effectively, they learnt to accept empirical reality at any given moment ('It should be happening because it is!') without necessarily having to like or approve of what they had accepted.
Also, acceptance of reality does not mean passivity, resignation or indifference but the starting point to change or modify aspects of it. Therefore, when I focused on their anger it was not whether it was justified in the circumstances but what were the consequences for them in holding on to their anger. This approach usually yields a more productive outcome than challenging the basis of an individual's anger (Terjesen, DiGiuseppe and Naidich, 1997). By tackling the self-defeating consequences of their anger both at work and home, Paul and Sue were more likely to manage themselves and the situation more constructively.
Paul's plan of action
As Paul wanted to avoid the disastrous chain of events that unfolded when he got angry about having to write the report, he left a message on his desk, prominently displayed, which read: 'When it happens, deal with it'. The 'it' could refer to any task, crisis, setback, etc. By gradually internalising this attitude, he realised he could control his emotional reactions to workplace events which then made it more likely that he could positively influence these events. He cited an example of being an eleventh-hour replacement to chair a meeting
Paul: Six months earlier if I'd been asked I would have got myself into a right old state, you know saying things like 'I shouldn't be put in this position' and 'They should have given me adequate warning'.
Michael: And now...?
Paul: Well, I immediately swung into action by quickly reviewing the background information to the key agenda items. This info came off the fax and I was reading it on the way to the meeting. Things went pretty smoothly. My manager thanked me for doing a good job. The secret I've discovered is to get hold of the problem straight away and do something about it.
Michael: And what if you can't do something about it straight away...?
Paul: Well, I just put it on hold until I can do something about it or accept the situation if I can't do anything about it. But whichever way it goes, I no longer get stressed-out about it.
Sue's action plan
While Paul's action plan was based on meeting future challenges, Sue still had the current challenge to contend with: namely, her lazy boss. Now that she accepted that he should be lazy because he had been that way for two years (or as long as Sue had known him), her new outlook proved more productive even if it was hard to maintain at times:
Sue: I go into his office every morning and point out the delay and inefficiency created by him holding on to the post until late morning.
Michael: What's been the effect of that?
Sue: Well, he's surprised I brought it up, and then I was surprised when he said I should have brought it up before if it was a concern of mine. I was taken aback by how reasonable he was.
Michael: Your anger probably prevented you from finding that out some time ago. So are you actually getting the post earlier?
Sue: Oh, much earlier now, so I can deal with the correspondence as one of my first tasks in the morning.
Michael: What about those other issues you were talking about, like his indecisiveness and delegating burdensome tasks?
Sue: I'm making some progress there but not as much as I want. It can be frustrating at times.
Michael: Well, the idea in changing some of your anger-creating attitudes is to develop more influence with individuals or on events but not get carried away by the idea that you can control these things. It's an important distinction to learn, otherwise you might start creating new problems for yourself.
Sue: I might be doing that already. Michael: In what way? Sue: Well, I can hear myself saying 'He should keep changing his ways of doing things until I'm satisfied'.
Michael: Is that attitude based on influence or control Sue: It sounds like control because I get angry again if he starts to slip back with things like the post. I don't want to get into all that anger again.
Michael: Well, acknowledge the progress that has been made, keep up the attempts at positively influencing him but try to let go of that dictatorial 'should' unless you want to increase your problems again.
Sue: No I don't, so I'll do my best to get rid of it.
Problem-creating is easily done. One form discussed in this article is reality-denying 'should' statements which frequently lead to problems about problems. The antidote for this kind of thinking is suggested by Walen, DiGiuseppe and Dryden (1992, p.22): "Accepting an unfortunate reality and not getting overly upset about it acknowledges that the reality exists, that it is unpleasant, that it would be irrational to demand or insist that it should not have happened [or be this way], and that we will attempt to change it, if we can". As these case examples have shown, once the reality of a particular situation is accepted problem-solving can begin. In essence, individuals are not at their problem-solving best when emotionally disturbed.
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