How to Deal with Dilemmas

Roger Schwarz

A dilemma is a special kind of problem. When you are in a dilemma, every alternative solution is unacceptable. For those of us in the United States, we are watching a large-scale economic dilemma play out. If the federal government bails out the banks, we are rewarding incompetence. If we don’t bail out the banks, the financial system may collapse, taking the economy down with it.

Some of the most challenging dilemmas our clients face involve getting information out in the open so people can act on it.

We frequently coach leaders who face this dilemma. Consider this example. Glenn and Barbara complain to their boss Corey about their coworker Mel. According to Glenn and Barbara, Mel is difficult to deal with. He doesn’t involve other team members in making decisions and he gets defensive when people point this out to him. As a result, Mel’s projects don’t have the information and commitment they need, so they come in late, over budget and with poor quality. When Corey hears this, his first question to Glenn and Barbara is, “Have you talked with Mel about this?” But Glenn and Barbara say that they haven’t talked to Mel about this because they are tired of dealing with him, they know he won’t respond favorably, and they are concerned about Mel retaliating.

If you are in Corey’s position, here is a three-pronged dilemma. If you simply tell Glenn and Barbara to raise the issue with Mel, they are not likely to do so or will do so in a way that makes the situation worse. If you raise the issue with Mel for Glenn and Barbara, you shift the responsibility from them to you and Mel will not get the information he needs to understand their concerns or work differently with them. Finally, if no one talks to Mel, the situation will just continue and your projects will continue to suffer.

With any dilemma, there are basic steps you can take to resolve it:

1. Name the dilemma for yourself.

The first step is to identify the dilemma you face. All dilemmas have the same form: “If I do A, I will get negative consequence X, If I do B, I will get negative consequence Y . . .”

2. Identify the interests you want to meet.

Embedded in each negative consequence is a need or interest to be met. For example, embedded in the negative consequence of shifting responsibility from Glenn and Barbara to you is your need for team members to be accountable for talking directly with people they have concerns about. Embedded in the negative consequence of things getting worse between Glenn, Barbara and Mel is the obvious need for the relationship between the three of them to improve rather than deteriorate. By going through the dilemma, you can quickly identify the interests to be met.

3. Identify the assumptions embedded in the dilemma that keep the needs from being met.

This step is a little more difficult because you need to identify assumptions. Interestingly, the word dilemma stems from the Greek word meaning “involving two assumptions.” What usually keeps a dilemma unsolvable are the assumptions that people make about how the dilemma can be solved. For example, Glenn and Barbara assume that talking with Mel will lead to a deterioration of their relationship, in part because they also assume that Mel will get defensive. Sometimes changing the assumption means changing the meaning of an outcome. For example, leaders often assume that it’s bad for people to get upset in response to feedback. Viewed from another angle, however, getting upset by tough feedback can provide the motivation someone needs to make a sustainable, positive change in their behavior. In this way what was originally seen as a negative outcome becomes a positive outcome.

4. Describe the dilemma to others. Jointly design a solution that either challenges the assumptions or makes them irrelevant.

In our example, Corey would describe to Barbara and Glenn the dilemma that they are facing. If Barbara and Glenn agree with Corey’s description, then the situation shifts from a potential conflict about who will tell Mel to a shared dilemma in which the three of them are in the same metaphorical boat. This makes a huge difference psychologically. Regarding the solution, it might involve Corey (or someone else with strong Mutual Learning skills) participating in the conversation with Barbara, Glenn, and Mel so that it increases the chance that the conversation goes well. It might also involve coaching Barbara and Glenn before the meeting so they are able to contribute productively during the meeting. And it might involve helping Mel prepare for the meeting for the same reasons.

Originally published April 2009