The Ultimate Guide to Problem Solving in The Workplace

Published on 18/10/2019


Life rarely runs smoothly for long. It’s likely that throughout the space of just one week, you will face one small problem at least. However, what do you do when a larger problem threatens your business?

Most businesses face some kind of crisis from time to time, and whilst these large problems are far less frequent than the tiny issues which can be sorted out quickly, it is important to face them head-on, in the right way, and to know how to avoid making the situation worse.

Understanding the situation clearly is a vital part of knowing how to approach any problem. Without really looking carefully at what the situation is, what its potential is, what areas it might affect outside of its immediate area, and working out the best way to move past it, it’s impossible to make any kind of positive head-way. In this case, problems will threaten your business survival time and time again.

However, it certainly doesn’t have to be that way! Most problems can simply be overcome with little work and careful decision making, disaster avoidance, and they can then be used as a learning tool. This means you can evaluate the issue around the modern boardroom tables and work out how to avoid the same thing happening again in the future. In some ways, problems are actually very valuable learning experiences, disguised as a major issue. 

This guide is going to talk about the vital facets of facing a problem, avoiding disaster, and problem-solving as a whole. We’re going to cover a lot of information, but by the end, you should feel a lot more comfortable about the chances of avoiding disaster after disaster within your business. Some points we talk about might also help you in problems you might face in your personal life too.

Skills Required For Effective Problem Solving in The Workplace

Problems can come at any time, and they can appear small, before growing into a major earthquake, or vice versa. Being able to face a problem at your office desks and understand it is part and parcel of management, but every employee needs to be able to solve small problems on their feet, to avoid the ramifications of what seems like a small issue, becoming a major problem further down the line.

Sometimes we make our own problems, but much of the time they’re out of our control. For instance, procrastination is often a problem-causer. 

A small issue, i.e. a large job which needs to be completed by a certain deadline can be put off and put off until it becomes a huge issue a few days later. If you’d simply worked through the project in smaller chunks, e.g. broken it down into smaller milestones, you’d have made progress at your office chairs, and the issue wouldn’t be as huge as it is now. Having said that, avoiding procrastination is certainly not easy! If this is your problem, don’t worry because we’re going to cover that subject in a little more detail shortly. 

So, in order to solve problems and face issues in the workplace effectively, what types of skills do you need to have?

It depends entirely on the problem at hand, but a few general skills include:

Creative Thinking And Intuition 

Most problems can be approached in a logical way or a creative way. You might need a little peace and quiet to explore these creative options, but heading to the office booths and brainstorming is a good option. 

If you go down the line of logical all the time, you might be missing out on a solution which doesn’t seem so obvious at first, but actually turns out to be the best route. Relying upon your intuition can be difficult, especially when you’re not used to doing it, but it’s something you can learn to trust over time. Ironically, your intuition, or gut feeling, can actually be a great source of guidance!

Check out this video which talks about why intuition isn’t simply a mystical thing we don’t quite understand. 

A Team Player With an Open Mind

Having an open mind to several solutions is the best way to approach a problem. If you’re closed-minded, e.g. you believe that your way is always the best way, or a set approach is always the way to go, you might also be missing out on a more effective route towards solving the problem at hand. 

Be open to new suggestions and don’t pass suggestions off without looking a little further into them first. This also means that you need to be able to work effectively as part of a team and listen to the views of others. Why not gather around the stand height tables and have a collaboration session when a problem arises? This way you can pull new ideas out of the ether and figure out a way forward much more effectively. 

If you’re a manager, discuss problems with your employees and ask for their insights and suggestions. Your brain isn’t the master here, and you’re not always going to see things in the right way all the time. If the problem is linked to everyday working within the office, it’s far more likely that an employee who is in that office all the time is going to have a better solution, or at least an idea, than someone who isn’t in that situation constantly. 

Ironically, by doing this, you’re also boosting morale and helping your employees feel like you value their input and their ideas. Remember, there is no room for ego in the workplace, so make sure you allow others to have their fair amount of input too!

The Ability to Research Effectively 

Sometimes we need to do a little research in order to find out more about a specific problem and look into ways in which the same problem has been solved in the past. This involves research skills, and the patience to sit and brainstorm at your high end office desks.

In some cases, the research can be as simple as asking a colleague for advice or heading online and doing a search engine check. However, other times this might need more detailed research, perhaps reading case studies and delving a little deeper. A curious mind helps here, as this allows you to dig deeper into a problem and find information which could help you reach a quality outcome. 

The Ability to Forecast Impact

In some ways, this skill links to something called emotional intelligence. This means that you’re able to systemically look at a problem and work out what impact that problem is going to have on the business, but also on the people which are linked to it. In some ways, this more emotionally-guided response can be better, because it ensures that morale remains high and that you’re always thinking of employees and people, and not always numbers and profit margins. 

However, there is a certain line of caution here, because a business exists to make money at the end of the day! There has to be a balance and someone who is able to effectively look at a problem from their boardroom furniture and work out its forecasted impact is far more able to find a solution which minimises these effects. This means you can manage potential risks and weigh up the pros and cons of taking a particular route in terms of how much risk there is versus the amount of benefit that could come out of it. 

Effective Decision-Making Skills

A little later we’re going to delve into decision making, however, for now, the ability to make firm and solid decisions is vital in problem-solving situations. 

Not all decisions should be long-winded and detailed, but then not all decisions should be quick and snappy either. It depends on the situation, and a person who has good quality decision-making skills is able to weigh up all options and decide on a way forward, whilst sticking to that choice and not waving. 

For instance, a decision which isn’t linked to a specific problem is a less pressured decision. Making a decision on which contemporary office design to go for can be made in a much more leisurely manner, compared to a decision which is linked to a potentially serious issue. Despite that, taking your time when making any decision is vital. 

The confidence to make a decision and not worry about whether or not you made the right one isn’t something everyone can master, and even the best decision-makers in the world sometimes have their doubts. However, laying the groundwork and doing the research effectively means that you can make better decisions in the end.

How many of these skills do you have? Not everyone can tick them all off, so don’t worry if you’re missing one! Nobody is perfect, and there is always something to work on and improve. In terms of solve problems within the workplace, it’s always vital to ensure that you balance the emotional side with the hard business line whilst making decisions at your boardroom leather chairs

Yes, businesses need to make cash, but in order to make that case, you need to look after the people who do the work - your employees.

What is Outcome Bias?

When faced with a problem, we don’t always make the right choice in terms of solving it. Sometimes this can be because we lack the necessary skills to effectively deal with a problem in that particular niche, e.g. it’s not an area we’re familiar with, or it can be because we misjudge the issue and rush the process. 

Another potential reason why problems aren’t solved in the right way within a working environment is something called outcome bias.

Outcome bias is when we judge a particular decision based on the outcome. 

That sounds confusing, so let’s break it down. 

For instance, an investor makes a rash investment decision simply based on the fact that he did something similar in the past and it worked out. What he’s not realising is that the situation is different, interest rates are different, the level of risk involved is different. 

Another potential example is if you gamble in a casino and win big, and as a result, you decide to do it again, simply because it worked the first time. What you’re not realising is that it could have been pure luck the first time, and you’re missing the fact that gambling a huge amount of cash is never a good idea!

Making decisions based on the outcome of a similar problem from before isn’t the best way to approach a situation. The reason is that minor details were probably different the last time, and those differences could end up derailing you this time.

Outcome bias is a very common, and very dangerous, thinking pattern which causes us to make very bad decisions, with varying degrees of impact. 

Check out this very interesting infographic which highlights a few other bias problems we have in our minds, which can drastically affect the way we make decisions, in the workplace and at home.

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As you can see, being overconfident is also a huge issue when making decisions. Jumping ahead and thinking that you know the whole picture can mean that you’re drastically increasing the amount of risk involved. Sure, there’s always going to be some risk, but it’s vital to minimise it as much as possible. You do that by knowing all the facts first!

How Can Procrastination Make a Problem Worse?

A little earlier we hinted towards procrastination and how it can be a huge problem causer in the workplace. 

Do you procrastinate regularly?

If you’re nodding your head, don’t worry. Most people procrastinate at some point, but if you find yourself doing it a lot, i.e. putting off tasks because they seem too large or difficult, or they’re something you don’t particularly enjoy, you need to try and find ways to reduce your behaviour. 

Putting tasks off simply means they’re going to snowball into something more important or urgent in the future. Similarly, procrastinating when making a decision or trying to solve a problem can also make it worse. 

Some problems need to be solved quickly in order to minimise the amount of potential damage they’re going to do. For instance, perhaps a marketing campaign has been launched but you’ve been alerted to the fact that it contains some slightly misleading information. That’s a problem because customers will highlight the problem and it will affect confidence in your brand. Not putting the mistake right quickly means there is a much higher chance of this misleading information causing an earthquake ripple throughout your business. However, if you act quickly and remove it or clarify it, the problem will be overcome easily. 

Can you see how procrastination in problem-solving can be so damaging?

It’s easy to not want to take an action which you know is going to upset someone or cause a major effect within the workplace, but it’s important to understand that sometimes you have to take action which isn’t going to be extremely popular, in order to avoid the worst-case scenario. Handling it in the right way, e.g. speaking to people and reassuring them, making sure you deal with them on a human level, will minimise the impact on morale, whilst ensuring the problem doesn’t turn out to be an extremely serious one in the end. 

How to avoid procrastination? Understand the effect of putting off the thing you’re attempting to defer. Usually, imagining this will kick you into action and make you do the thing you’re attempting to put off! 

Of course, any type of problem solving is likely to involve more than one person and that means you need to ensure that you’re communicating clearly and effectively with everyone involved. 

One wrong move here could result in the problem becoming much worse!

Why Quick Decision Making Isn’t Always The Way Forward

Sometimes you need to make a snap decision quickly, thinking on your feet and effectively “putting out a fire”. These situations are quite rare in the grand scheme of things, because most business decisions need to be made carefully, therefore slowly. 

Making a fast decision means that you’re far more likely to miss out on a piece of information that could have actually changed the course of your response. In general, the best way to make a high quality decision involves: 

  • Understanding - Ascertaining what the problem actually is and what the potential ramifications of it could be
  • Research - Delving a little deeper into how the problem could be solved
  • Analysis - Weighing up the pros and cons of each potential solution 
  • Discuss - Possibly discussing the issue with those around you, to get their input. This means a discussion around the boardroom table with cable management, exploring different options and using technology to do so in some cases 
  • Make the decision - Make the choice, execute it, and trust your choice. It’s important to be firm in your choice once you’ve made it and not to second guess or go back on it. 

After a decision has been made it’s very easy to worry about whether you made the right choice. However, covering the steps beforehand carefully should give you faith in your decision and help you to stick to it.

Check out this video which gives some more information on how to make great decisions.

What Should You Avoid Doing When Facing a Problem?

When you’re facing a problem in the workplace, there are things you should do and things you most certainly should not do. To help you face problems and solve them effectively, let’s look at the things you need to avoid doing first, before moving onto the things you should do a little later in the guide. 

When facing problems at work, avoid the following:

Burying Your Head in The Sand 

Problems rarely go away on their own, and it’s far more likely that the issue will simply grow in severity. Do not sit at your executive luxury office furniture and ignore the issue.  

Look at it a little like a wound. If you leave it, it’s likely to become infected and start oozing all manner of unpleasant gunk. However, if you treat it quickly, it will heal and the issue will be solved. Sure, it might leave a slight scar, but at least there was no oozing gunk!

A workplace decision is exactly the same. Pretending something isn’t happening is just going to make matter worse and cause the issue to become serious, rather than simply a slight irritant. Face it head on, work out what needs to be done, and do it. 

Involving People Who Aren’t Affected

You 100% need to discuss the problem with the people involved, i.e. those who the problem is going to affect directly. However, if you involve many people who aren’t necessarily affected, you’re going to confuse the matter and cause a ripple of potential panic amongst the entire office space.

It’s a definite ‘don’t' to involve too many people. Keep it restricted to those who need to know and those who it is going to affect. By doing this, you’re containing the problem, but you’re not alienating anyone. By telling those who need to know, you’re reducing anxiety and keeping them in the loop, whilst also allowing them to put forth useful suggestions. 

Thinking Your Answer is The Only One

Again, you need to be open minded to possible solutions to the problem and not simply go in with a blinkered view, believing that your view is the only one which is going to work. It’s vital that you do your research and think deeply about how to face the problem. Different opinions within your team can also bring useful solutions to the fore. 

There is always more than one way to go about anything in life, and that includes workplace problems. Remember to blend logic and creativity to come up with a quality solution, whilst also talking to those involved to get their input too. 

Panicking And Making a Snap Decision 

It’s important to take your time and avoid making panic-based decisions. Yes, the issue might be terrifying in the moment, but making a decision which isn’t going to work over the long-term could make the whole thing worse! 

There is no decision you’re likely to face in the workplace which won’t allow you to take a few days to try and figure out the best route. Take your time, do your research, and make a firm, and well-informed decision. 

These might seem like no-brainer steps to avoid, but you’d be surprised at how many people actually make these mistakes and then end up staring at an even bigger problem.

Now, let’s talk about the steps you can take to effectively solve problems in the workplace. 

7 Steps to Effective Problem Solving

If you want to face a problem in the best way, i.e. giving you the best chance of a successful outcome, there are 7 steps you should take. 

Before we explore each one in greater detail, check out this infographic which outlines the general procedure. 

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Step 1 - Clarify The Issue in Detail 

Make sure that you know what the problem is in detail. Avoid rumours and ‘what ifs’ and stick to facts. What is the problem? What stage is the problem at? What is the potential damage right now? If left to continue, what damage could occur?

Sticking to facts will help you avoid going off on a tangent and trying to solve something which may never actually occur. It’s very easy to panic in the moment, so be careful who you listen to when being informed about the problem and again, keep your circle of those who know about it tight for the time being. Once you know the facts, you can then discuss the problem with those whom it affects, to gain extra insight. For now however, until the facts are crystal clear, keep it to yourselves. 

Step 2 - Seek Out Suggestions 

Now you know what the problem is and the facts are clarified, you can discuss the problem with those whom it affects. For instance, if the problem is a serious glitch in a certain part of your IT system and it may mean that you need to look for alternative software choices, speak to your IT department, and then speak to the staff who use the IT system on a regular basis.

This means you can find out about any other glitches they’ve noticed and have simply been living with, and ask their opinions on what could be done better if you do choose to go down the line of an alternative. 

Avoid making decisions based on these suggestions at this point, as there is more work to be done before the final point! However, by informing people about the problem, being open and honest, and asking for opinions, whilst ensuring that you’re really listening to their input, you’re showing your employees that you value them, that you want to know their ideas, and that you’re not hiding anything. This boosts morale and keeps any panic reaction to a minimum. 

Remember, there will always be gossip within a workplace, to being open and honest about a problem stops any potential rumours and Chinese whispers occurring. 

3 - Brainstorm Possible Answers to The Problem

Pull everything together at this point and brainstorm all the potential actions you can take to solve the problem. Make sure you incorporate any ideas which your employees put forward too. Whilst you might not go with their suggestion in the end, it’s important to consider it as equally as your own and the rest of your management team.

Make sure you create the ideal environment for ideas too. Think about trendy office furniture and an inspiring decor, which will help new ideas appear out of thin air!

Again, at this point you’re not deciding on an action, you’re clearing your mind of possible answers to the problem. Once you’ve managed to get every idea out of your mind, write a list to make everything clearer. 

4 - Work Out The Pros And Cons of Each Option 

Take your brainstorming list and work out the pros and cons of each option you’ve listed. There will be advantages and disadvantages to each route, and no answer to any problem is ever going to be 100% perfect. What you need to do however is be honest at this point and work out which option is going to give you the best outcome, i.e. the least impact and the best result in terms of morale. 

You’re never going to reach an outcome which everyone is going to agree with, and you’re never going to please everyone, but doing your best to focus on the good of the business, whilst ensuring that morale is high, will give you a positive outcome in the end. 

5 - Make a Decision on The Option You’re Going With 

Which of your options do you feel the most strongly about in terms of it being the best answer to the problem at hand? At this point, you need to make a choice. It could be that you create a hybrid solution, e.g. several options rolled into one, and tweaked a little to give you the best outcome for a problem you have to face. 

Whichever option you go with, note down the final decision and the steps you’re going to take to put it into action. Simply making a choice of “yes, I’m going to do this” won’t work. You need a plan to put it into action.

6 - Inform Those Whom it Concerns

Now you know what you’re going to do about the problem and you have a clear route towards resolving the problem, you need to feedback to those you consulted with at the beginning. This is good for morale, because it means you’re keeping everyone up to date, and it ensures that everyone knows what is going on, and they’re not worrying or becoming anxious about the outcome of the problem you’re currently facing. 

If you need help to put the plan into place, this is the time to form a focus group of sorts. This means you can split the workload between the group and ensure that everything is done properly and in a timely manner.

You should also then decide between you when you’re going to review progress and see if the solution has worked, or whether further action needs to be taken. It could be that you make some progress to solve the issue, but a little extra is required. It really depends upon the problem and how complex it is to begin with. 

For instance, if you’re not dealing with a problem and you’re simply making a decision about something, e.g. the best office furniture to go for, you would make a plan, execute it and then review it after few months to see if it’s working. The same rules apply for any type of a decision, problem-related or otherwise. 

How to Turn a Problem Into a Learning Curve

Once the problem seems to have been solved, or you notice a good amount of progress being made, it’s a good idea to sit and look back over the issue. With this, you should work out what you could have done to avoid it, how you could handle it better next time, and how to put steps into place to avoid it happening again in the future. 

In this case, you’re turning a negative into a positive. The negative is the problem occurring in the first place, but the positive is the fact you’ve learnt something from it and you’re going to use best practice to avoid it happening again in the future.

Every single problem you encounter within your workplace should be analysed to find out if there is anything that could be done differently in the future. This isn’t picking everything apart, it’s simply trying to make the best of a bad situation, whilst improving your business performance and growth potential in the future. 


Life rarely runs according to plan, and the same can be said for business. Problems will crop up from time to time and whilst you can’t avoid all of them, you can ensure that when they do happen, you deal with them effectively and then use the whole experience as a learning curve. 

Understanding the problem in detail is the first step. Far too many people rush in, assuming they have a grasp on what the issue is, only to find out further down the line that they didn’t really understand the nuances of it to begin with. Don’t make this mistake - instead, spend a good amount of time at the start working out what you’re facing and dealing with. 

If you can do that, the rest of the process will be much easier as a result. 

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