A Positive Approach to Problems

Businessman standing looking upward

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Turn the tables and look at what’s going right.

When facing an obstacle in your work or personal life, you likely start by looking for what’s not working. That’s a problem-solving skill that comes so naturally it’s nearly instinctive. You identify the problem, find root causes, brainstorm solutions, choose the best solution and implement it.

But what if you focused on what’s going right and then replicated those best practices in other areas? What if there were a different approach that would complement and add to your instinct to fix what’s broken? Well, there is. We call it the strengths-based approach.

Imagine that you’re an architect who designs bridges. How would you learn about the best bridges to build? Would you study all the bridges that have collapsed or all the bridges that have withstood the test of time? You probably would study both. However, too often we focus only on the bridges that have collapsed.

In contrast, strengths-based leaders focus more of their attention on what’s going right and then replicate those best practices in other areas. They don’t ignore problems; rather, they recognize that solving problems and shoring up weaknesses are only part of the results equation.

Let’s look at a consultant who specializes in project management—we’ll call her Elizabeth. When Elizabeth first approaches a client, she asks: “What’s the problem?” She finds out what hasn’t been working so that she can propose various solutions and help the client implement the most promising one. 

There is nothing wrong with this approach. People like Elizabeth traditionally improve results by removing one problem after another. This is crucial for companies to
do—and do well.

Now imagine another version of Elizabeth. The client starts telling her about the product problems. She then asks: “Where in the company is this not a problem? In what department is it working extremely well?” Elizabeth is focused on what is already going right, and she is looking for ways to replicate successes.

We don’t apply the same rigor to studying and capitalizing on what’s going right. We don’t often study the exceptional results to see what we can learn and apply them elsewhere in our business. And even if we do, when we try to implement these best practices, we are often met with resistance or what we call the “that won’t work here” syndrome.

We are certain there are some areas of your life that are going really well. Study those and see whether you can repeat it in other parts of your life. You may be extremely proactive about setting up meetings, but you may be not so good at organizing projects. 

Consider why you do well at being proactive about meetings. You may say that you like to set up a meeting as soon as you believe it is needed, without hesitation. What if you applied that same attitude toward organizing your projects?  As soon as you decide that you need to organize some projects, what if you jump right in with a small organizational step?  What makes us successful in one arena can be studied and incorporated into another arena.

Becoming a strengths-based leader isn’t about implementing some program du jour. It’s a way of being—a way of leading. Leaders must first acknowledge and model their own strengths. Only then can a leader truly appreciate and leverage the strengths of others.


Margaret H. Greenberg and Senia Maymin, Ph.D.​ are organizational consultants and executive coaches. You can find more information at www.ProfitFromThePositive.com. Their new book is Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2013).

From the premiere issue of Live Happy magazine.