Many of us struggle with arguments and miscommunication because we don’t understand this concept called problem ownership.  And the reason we don’t understand it is because “problem ownership” isn’t a great way of describing what is actually going on.  If you think about the name, it sounds like you own a problem.  And for most people if they own a problem it feels more like they are the problem.  And that’s not what it’s about.

Problem OwnershipProblem ownership means that you’re the one upset in any given communication.  Let me explain:

My husband just invested into a business overseas.  Before the final agreements were done, I had been involved in the whole process and helped to ask questions that my husband wasn’t necessarily thinking about.  He agreed that I had some valid concerns he needed to look into before signing on the dotted line.  Several weeks later, while I was overseas, he asked me to assist him in transferring the money for the purchase.  I agreed, and at the same time, followed up on my concerns.  He hadn’t done anything about any of them!  I was furious.

In this scenario, I was the one who owned the problem because I was the one who was upset.  He wasn’t upset by his disregard for my concerns.  It didn’t matter to him at all.  His lack of follow-through was my problem, not his.  Him ignoring my concerns was my problem, not his.  Though I believed that he would have a lot of problems because he didn’t listen to me, it didn’t matter to him.  He wasn’t upset.  I was.  My problem.

Let me give you another example from a work situation.

Your employee comes up to you and says that another employee has lied to a customer on the phone and she’s really upset about it.  Who owns the problem?  So far, it’s just she who owns the problem.  She’s the one upset.  And now you have a choice:

  • Are you also going to be upset and take ownership of this employee’s problem?
  • Are you going to not get upset and investigate the situation first, and thereby not taking ownership of the problem because you’re not sure if you own one yet?
  • Or are you going to coach your upset employee on resolving her problem, allowing you to avoid taking ownership and responsibility for the solution WHILE training your employee with a new skill set?

For a lot of managers, especially new managers, they take control, and therefore, take ownership.  It takes a lot of time when we take ownership of other people’s problems.  We have enough problems of our own without having to borrow ones from other people.  Think about this the next time you are upset or someone is upset around you.  Who really owns the problem?



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