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Groups and teamwork
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5.2.2 Owning problems

Problem ownership is a tricky issue. It's also an issue that good leaders get right instinctively, and poor leaders get wrong consistently. The point is that there are two distinct classes of problems faced by leaders. The first consists of problems which are owned by the group members. Examples include when some additional resources are required, when instructions are not understood or when members complain that something is wrong. Under these conditions the leader's function is to provide problem-solving skills or to represent the members' interests in some other forum. The leader is clearly serving the needs of the members. The second consists of problems which are owned by the leader. This is the set that is usually mishandled, because many leaders, acting on the authoritarian principle, use their position to blame subordinates for their own problems. Examples of a leader's problem include when the leader fails to meet a production target, when the leader regards the behaviour of a group member as unacceptable or when someone in another department won't give the leader the extra resources he or she wants. The key to the ownership of problems is 'who is it that is bothered?' or 'who is it who says that there's a problem?'.

Where a problem is clearly owned by the leader, then any attempt on the part of the leader to force group members to change their behaviour so as to solve the problem will be accurately perceived by the group as authoritarian. (A good definition of authoritarian behaviour is that it occurs whenever a person tries to solve one of his or her problems by trying to change someone else, or what someone else does.) This means that it will meet opposition and provoke the sort of parent–child transactions which prevent effective working. Effective leaders avoid this situation by using a very simple device: they accept responsibility for their problems. What this means is that when they set about tackling their problems, they do not attribute them to someone else. For example, where an authoritarian leader might say, 'Things have got to change in this department because you didn't meet the production standards last quarter!', the effective leader might say, 'I have a problem. I was hauled over the coals this morning because the production figures weren't up to the target I agreed to meet last quarter'. The effective leader makes the ownership of the problem clear and invites group members to cooperate and contribute to its solution. It is a strong characteristic of this sort of statement that it begins with 'I' and continues to refer to 'I', whereas the authoritarian statements are usually focused on 'you'.