The Value of Presence in Problem-Solving

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for a non-profit I work with at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. The conference sessions covered everything from the role of women in international peacekeeping to gender equality and education for girls in developing countries, along with riveting conversations with international ambassadors and representatives from peace-focused organizations and grassroots non-profits. While I tried to keep my brain from melting down with information overload, there was one specific session — about engaging men in advancing gender equality — that got me thinking about the importance of what I’ll call “presence in problem-solving”.

One of the speakers in this session quoted the phrase “A bird cannot fly with only one wing”. Working in developing countries where war has forced a regression of the idea of masculinity, linking it to violence and power, means that advancing the position of women in society is often directly at odds with what is perceived as appropriate masculine behavior. And yet, because you’re still dealing with a patriarchal society, men are a vital piece of the puzzle. “A bird cannot fly with only one wing” is a metaphor for a society trying to achieve prosperity without elevating women’s rights, but it can likewise be a metaphor for trying to achieve those rights without the support of half of the population.

Now, let’s take a step back. I don’t know about you, but my day-to-day professional life doesn’t necessarily consist of this level of intensity. Did attending this conference make me question what the heck I’m doing while looking at a stage full of women and men my age who are fighting daily to radically change the distribution of power on a global scale? Yes. But make no mistake, these learnings are relevant even in our little capitalist-driven corners of the world. And here’s why:

The value of presence in problem-solving is universal. You cannot solve a problem if half of those affected by it aren’t in the room. Or worse, if no one affected by it is in the room. This principle stands when advancing gender equality (and note: this should be men working with women, not for women), and it stands in every other aspect of business decision-making. When discussing how to improve employee morale, you’re in trouble if the only people in the room are members of the executive team. When discussing how to create a more diverse environment, you’re in trouble if your conference room is only full of people who look like you. And if you’re trying to solve problems and create new products for clients, you’re in trouble if you aren’t inviting clients to be a part of the conversation.

So why is it so hard to achieve presence in problem-solving? I think it boils down to two factors: Unconscious bias and comfort level. We’re all more likely to seek out people who are like us, whether to spend time with socially or to help us solve a problem. You go to the people you get along with best or whose point of view you value most — and a majority of the time, that person is a lot like you. We also want to feel comfortable in the discussions we’re having, especially if we’re tackling a difficult topic. If you’re trying to build a new product, you want everyone in the room to be on board — bringing in an outside client voice puts you in the potential position to hear the words “This won’t work. We would never buy it.” And then where are you? In spite of our best efforts, we often fall into the old trap of choosing comfort and familiarity over discomfort and challenge. It’s human nature, which is why it can be so difficult to see even when the proof of these inclinations is right in front of us.

Now let’s take a look at why presence in problem-solving can help you find greater success. At its core, this is about the intersection of empathy and experience. Your best shot at solving a problem comes from having two types of people in the room: those who have experienced the problem, and those who can empathize with that experience. Empathy is a catalyst for change, which means that genuine action is far more likely to come out of a meeting in which some attendees can speak to experiencing a problem first-hand to elicit empathy from those who also wish to solve the problem, but haven’t experienced it themselves.

On a global scale of advancing gender equality, this is why it’s vital to invite men into the conversation. On a business scale, this is why careful consideration should be given to everyone who is brought in to solve a problem. If the meeting is only full of people who have experienced the problem with no one from the outside, you risk the meeting turning into a glorified group complaint session. Vice versa, if no one sitting in the room has actually experienced the problem you’re trying to solve, you may end up with a wildly off-track solution or a complete misunderstanding of the issue itself, no matter how good your intentions might be.

If your day-to-day life is anything like mine, you probably aren’t coming up against world-altering problems and decisions on a regular basis. But, you still have a responsibility to the people you work with every day (you may even be responsible for their employment) and the clients you serve. You have problems you need to solve, and being more mindful of presence in problem-solving can help you get the right mix of experience and empathy in the room to encourage debate, questions and a better, stronger solution.

Rachel PComment