Finding the extraordinary in ordinary

Solution-focused leadership can transform workplace: Expert
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/11/2017
Rock Star
A simple mindset shift can help human resources practitioners turn troubled corporate cultures into rock-star ones, according to an HR expert. Credit: Vectomart (Shutterstock)

A simple mindset shift can help human resources practitioners turn troubled corporate cultures into rock-star ones.

And it’s all about focusing on the positive and seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary, according to Sarah McVanel, author and founder of Greatness Magnified consulting firm in St. Catharines, Ont.

Today’s HR professionals often move from fire to fire, dousing one grievance with proverbial water before another pops up, she said.

But solutions are within HR’s grasp, said McVanel, speaking at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCN) event in Toronto.

Through solution-focused leadership — a mindset shift from problems to solutions — HR is able to awaken team creativity, adaptability and resourcefulness, she said.

HR needs to stop viewing problems as issues, but rather opportunities, said McVanel.

“What is a solution-focused approach? It is looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary of our everyday lives,” she said.  “If we see the opportunity that the situation may have brought to us, we may see a whole bunch of possibilities and solutions that we may never have thought of otherwise.”

“It’s going to make your workplace — and all the people that are impacted by the leaders you influence — that much better resources.”

Solution-focused leadership

The talent shortage is a challenge.

“It never ceases to amaze me that we are in the midst of a talent shortage that shows no signs of easing until 2030, and yet on the flip side, what do our statistics look like in terms of satisfaction for our workers?” said McVanel. “We know that only 30 per cent of folks are satisfied. Does that not seem like it just doesn’t compute?”

More than ever before, companies need to retain their organizational “rock stars,” she said. And what if that was possible through a shift in leadership perspective meant to inspire human capital?

“Ten per cent unemployment? That’s actually a good thing,” said McVanel. “Because for the people inside your organization, you have an opportunity to make them so incredibly loyal. We can harness the greatness that is within our existing workforce. What a wonderful opportunity we have.”

A mindset shift can be borne through simple changes, such as altered meeting structures and effective social presence by HR, she said.

Through an interactive example at the event, McVanel demonstrated that shaking hands and asking what workers appreciate can prime employees with positivity prior to work meetings.

Workers typically come to meetings primed with the feelings they are experiencing in their busy day, she said. Acknowledging the person before the problem is critical.

“If you start off in a place of resourcefulness, what you’re going to get is probably more resourceful conversation afterwards.”

Tools of the trade

How is this type of leadership best applied? McVanel offered five simple strategies.

Ask solution-focused questions: HR’s role is essentially to help workers develop and process the appropriate response themselves, she said.

To demonstrate, McVanel spoke with an event attendee, who responded to each of her questions in Spanish. By asking questions such as “What do you most want?” or “What is already working?” followed by “Anything else?” it revealed the respondent already had the answers within herself.

“Having absolute belief that you have all of the answers within yourself about whatever thing that you’re working through right now” is the point, she said. “Standing there (as HR) in authentic curiosity, generally wanting to understand what the person’s ideas are” is the process.

HR’s energy should be authentic in both positive and negative moments, as should be the need to believe in each worker’s resourcefulness even before they demonstrate it, said McVanel. Often, the hardest point is biting your tongue and letting the employee work it through in her own mind — holding the faith that the person is the expert of her own life.

“We’re having accountability conversations in those moments.”

Make your intention your “why”: HR professionals and employees alike need to connect to their true purpose, and that starts by deciding on what’s most important.

Think about what makes you individually fabulous and make it an action by adding “ing,” she said. Doing so helps colleagues see value in one another — critical in both work and personal value.

Embrace resource gossip: Gossip is a workplace constant, but HR should work to channel it and have employees share positive statements typically reserved for private conversations with colleagues.

“Gossip is social glue,” said McVanel. “It’s not going anywhere, so why try to stop something that we really don’t have much control over?”

Look for complaints: Negativity and complaints can make up a company’s barometer, but a complaint should be viewed simply as a poorly worded request, she said.

Understand that HR’s role may not necessarily be to fix the situation. Instead, direct employees to use their inner knowledge.

“There are a few things that, yes, we as leaders need to do,” she said. “The majority of things, individuals can address on their own. If I’m not trying to solve the person’s problem, I’m listening for the request. I’m listening to their greatness.”

“And as a solution-focused leader, I’m listening for the extraordinary that they’re sharing with me when they don’t even feel resourceful and they don’t feel extraordinary. Talk about building loyalty in those moments.”

Focus on what’s working: The premise behind the solution-focused leadership solution is simple, said McVanel. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it; if it’s working, do more of it; and, if it’s not working, do something else.

If 97 per cent of your organization is humming along smoothly, it is important to focus on that, rather than the three per cent problem area, she said.

Above all, attempt to work with people, not problems, and look for resources rather than deficits, said McVanel. Explore what is already contributing to possible futures and treat people as the experts in all parts of their lives.

In doing so, you will unleash your company’s rock-star potential.

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