Stop Tilting At Windmills: Accepting That You Can’t Solve Every(one’s) Problem

Part of our continuing series of posts on “Managing By Cliches.”

Like Don Quixote, HR people sometimes idealistically "tilt at windmills" -- fighting battles that can't be won.

HR people generally try hard to “fix” things — people, organizations, relationships, etc.  There is a bit of the idealistic and ever-hopeful Don Quixote  “tilting at windmills” in all of us, I suppose — always trying to make things better, even when others with a more objective view might see the situation (or the person) as hopeless. In the end, though, the most challenging “truth” that we need to accept as HR people might be that we can’t fix everyone or everything … especially if they don’t “ask” us to “fix” them.

Bob, The Customer Service Rep Who And Hated His Customers

Just from the “headline” above, you might say, “Well, that seems like an easy one.”  And you would be right.  The “fix” — for “Bob” to get a new job, and maybe even a completely new line of work — is easily seen… by everyone except for Bob, of course.

As it turns out, Bob is a bright, hard-working, earnest 30-something who, for the past decade or so has worked two full-time jobs at the same time: managing a restaurant and leading a customer service team in a busy office.  The good news is that he is talented and performs well at both jobs.  The bad news is that the cumulative weight of satisfying customer demands at both jobs has left him burned out, resentful of even the most innocuous of customer request, and generally feeling put-upon, unappreciated, cynical, and bitter at every turn. (The burdens of a difficult, costly divorce and caring for aging, demanding parents only serve to fuel Bob’s negative feelings).

Bob’s HR representative is constantly alert to the need to “talk him down” from the edge of a meltdown in the office.  They have talks about the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and whether or not there are non-customer facing openings in the company that he would be interested in .  Bob listens politely … but takes no action.

Alex, The Thoughtful Middle Manager Mis-Aligned With His Organization’s Culture

“Alex” is a thoughtful, well-respected leader of a key division in his organization, who has a passion for innovative sales strategies and is fully comfortable giving his operating team members all of the room and resources they need to do their jobs.  The only problem is that for more than a decade, he’s worked in a family-owned business where the family — though kind people in their own way — is highly controlling with regard to budgets (he only sees partial revenue numbers for his group), resources (purchases are approved by ownership on a case-by-case basis), and perks (rewarding employees with more than $5 gift cards is highly frowned upon).  Managerial latitude is very narrow or non-existent.

Add in the fact that he sits on a fairly dysfunctional management team (i.e., composed of talented individuals with good ideas — but with most decisions residing with ownership, regardless of the team’s views), and it’s no wonder that Alex is often discouraged and dispirited despite his naturally “sunny” and positive disposition.  His HR representative is continually trying to help Alex “keep his spirits up” — which he manages to do to a remarkable degree.  After every “down” period, Alex somehow finds a way to take a “new fresh breath” and keeps moving forward.

Approaching 60, by all appearances financially secure, and considerably world-weary (given the above), the HR person often wonders why Alex doesn’t retire or resign to take on new challenges in an organization that would permit him to lead in the way he is able to.  It is a question that goes unasked … and unanswered.

Acceptance Is The Hardest Part

It is hard for HR people to accept that we can’t “fix” things for the Bob’s and the Alex’s in our professional lives.  Inevitably, we keep trying and trying.  And just as inevitably, the situation doesn’t get resolved … because the person involved doesn’t take our advice.  Then we realize “why” … because they haven’t asked for our advice, or our help.

And that’s a bitter pill for “helpers” by nature to accept — but accept it we must, if we’re going to be effective over the long haul in this professional.   Here’s the hopeful part, though:

Someday (maybe even today), someone is going to walk into our office or call us on the phone and ask us to help (it might even be a Bob or an Alex, who’ve had a revelation and now want help).  When that happens, it is a very good day.

Try as we might, we can’t always fix everything even for people who ask for help … but if someone is trying to help himself/herself and asks for our help, we can try to help them, too.  And that makes all the difference in the world.

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2 responses to “Stop Tilting At Windmills: Accepting That You Can’t Solve Every(one’s) Problem

  1. Pingback: Tilting windmills | Selcer

  2. Well done Mike. What happens if the HR prof. becomes apathetic?

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