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When Is a Problem Really a "Problem"?


10Feb 2008

A fair amount of my time professionally is listening to individuals, families and organizations who are experiencing some challenges that they are trying to manage successfully. They describe to me a variety of problems and are looking for insight on what to do.

The issues range from individual behavior and feelings — anxiety about life, problems with anger management, patterns of communication which are viewed as condescending by others, uncertainty about one’s future career path — to problems solidly planted in the midst of relationships (marital conflict, a teenager or young adult who is demonstrating behavior problems and the parents don’t know what to do, a lack of trust among family members). And the challenges also can be more systemic or organizational — the lack of qualified managers who can “step up” to fill the gap when the current senior leaders retire, or current key employees who do not have the characteristics needed to be successful in their role.

Believe it or not, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is: “Do you think this is really a ‘problem’ or is it normal?” In essence, I am being asked: “Is this a ‘normal’ problem or is this something we should be concerned about?”

For example, parents aren’t sure if their teenager’s behavior is “normal teenage rebellion” or something greater. Or a manager doesn’t know if his direct report’s tendency to irritate his coworkers and those who work for him is “ok” and he should just let it ride, or if he should confront the issue.

Often, I give my clients some guidelines in order to determine if the problem is within the normal range of behavior (note that “normal” behavior includes challenges, weaknesses, and problem behavior) or if the pattern should be viewed more seriously. Here are a few ways to tell.

First, let’s clear the air on one viewpoint. Some people attempt to minimize problems they are having by saying: “There are lots of people who struggle with (xyz). It is not that big of a deal.” This is the adult version of the teenage justification, “Everyone is doing it!” The point trying to be made is that X behavior can’t really be problematic if it occurs frequently. Wrong. Ask the children of alcoholics or parents who are physically abusive (two high frequency behavior patterns). The level of frequency of a problem in a society has no bearing on its impact on individuals.

Ok, so here are the guidelines.

Frequency of the behavior. If a problem behavior (e.g. losing your temper and yelling at others) occurs once every six months, that is less of a concern than if the behavior occurs daily. Generally speaking, the more frequent a problem is demonstrated, the more concern there should be.

Intensity. Similarly, if the intensity of the behavior is fairly mild, this might be considered within the ‘normal’ range. But when the intensity is high, there is more concern. For example, if an employee is occasionally late to work five to ten minutes, that is not as significant as showing up two hours late (or not at all!) Anger reactions, drinking too much alcohol, anxiety, not fulfilling commitments made, etc. all fall into this realm.

Duration. If a behavior pattern has existed for 30 years (and potentially has grown worse over that time period), that is more problematic than a behavior that has just shown up recently. If a problem pattern has recently emerged, often we look for other stressors in the person’s life that may be temporary.

Generality. If a behavior pattern is pretty limited to one area of a person’s life, or one specific setting, that is less of a concern than if the behavior pattern can be seen in numerous setting. So if a manager relates to numerous people, in multiple settings, in a condescending or sarcastic way (with colleagues, with supervisors, with clients, with vendors, on the phone, in meetings, in email, out in public), then the “level” of the problem is more severe than if this style of communication only occurred with one vendor.

Impact on other areas of life. Some problem behaviors only impact one area of life (work, marriage, relationship with children). Some guys relate well to people at work and in the community, but treat their family members disrespectfully. Some people worry about their children, but the issue doesn’t bleed over into their work life, so that may not be as big of a concern.

Level of concern reported by numerous parties.
When an individual raises issues or concerns about another person, whether it is at work or within a family, I view the situation differently than when the same issue is being raised by numerous people. (This is especially true when the individuals don’t seem to have any secondary gains to realize from reporting the problem.)

So, if we take all the issues together, a “normal” problem behavior is probably displayed infrequently, with mild to moderate intensity, maybe has only existed for a short while, and is fairly limited in its scope of where it is displayed.

Conversely, real “problem” behaviors are seen frequently, can be scary in their intensity, have been around a long time, and occur in numerous areas of the person’s life, and usually is creating significant disturbance in his or her life’s functioning.

One final comment. “Problem” problems need to be addressed. They will not go away on their own. And most significant problems are not easy to solve (if they were, they probably would have already been resolved.) “Problem” problems usually require multiple strategies to correct them successfully.

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