How problem-solving styles affect team togetherness

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Oct 23 2020 by Curt Friedel Print This Article

We know that the best managers are those able to lead a cohesive team to ensure everything goes to plan - a skill especially important for managing today’s blended, dispersed workforce, with some working from home and others in the office. But in trying to achieve this, it’s often easy to forget that people respond differently to change and problems which, if unnoticed or poorly managed, can lead to a fractured team. How team members react to change and team-based problem solving can also be a lot harder to gage when working remotely.

What few managers also consider is how do team members respond to them as a leader and their approach to solving problems? How does team dynamics gel with your personality and affect team chemistry and productivity? Are they managing you effectively, too?

Adaptor or Innovator?

Forty years of published research under KAI (Kirton’s Adaption-innovation Inventory) shows that someone’s personality affects their approach to solving problems. They’re either more adaptive - solving problems by tweaking the current system rather than presenting ideas for a different system, or more innovative – devising an abundance of ideas to do things differently and to challenge the system. The adaptor will focus on the detail, preferring to work within well-established structures, while the innovator will be busy with more scattered thinking and ranging views, with less regard for group consensus or rules.

You can measure how innovative or adaptive you are on the KAI scale. It’s like being right or left-handed. It’s innate and highly resistant to change, and it’s independent of things like age, experience, or motivation. You can have two people who are equally intelligent, trained, with shared motive for the company to succeed, but disagree on how to solve the problem.

Because problem-solving style is connected to personality, it also relates to how you behave as a leader. Teams typically have both adaptive and innovative members, and the average score of the team can be used to determine how the team prefers to solve problems, identifying a cognitive climate – useful for leaders to know how best to rally the team to approach a problem.

This is especially important when individuals or leaders are significantly more adaptive or more innovative than the overall cognitive climate of the team, and can be left feeling like an outsider, or have difficulty working with the team.

When styles collide

Neither styles are better at leading. They simply differ in how they perceive and prefer to solve the problem. When it comes to adapting and leading in the new hybrid workplace, the more innovative may throw out the structure too soon, seeing it as limiting, and believing that the new normal is so different, the old way of doing things can’t possibly work.

Innovators don’t often see the guidelines of working together to solve a problem and may even cause tension in the team with various approaches to resolving the problem before building team cohesion. They’re likely to be viewed as illogical, random, inefficient, reckless and rude. The more adaptive team members may respond accordingly by not always taking the leader seriously, or disregarding ideas as not feasible.

On the other hand, a more adaptive leader respects rules and standard operating procedures. But as a result, they may hold on to structure for too long, for example, applying the same routines of the 9am to 5pm office working to the new blended workplace, as they struggle to adapt to change without establishing a new routine. Adaptors prefer tighter rules, which may not always be conducive to a hybrid world, and do the opposite of an innovator by working out first how best to collaborate as a team before focusing on the main problem.

To more innovative team members, such adaptive leaders may appear dull, boring, narrow minded and over-cautious. Innovators may therefore try to find ways to work around them, recognising which rules have more consequence if they’re broken.

With the team the elemental brick of organisational performance, it is the leader’s responsibility to maintain mutual respect and team cohesion by ensuring everyone has appreciation of how their colleagues contribute to the problem-solving process. One way leaders can do this is by using ‘coping behaviour.’

Coping behaviour and building respect

Coping behavior is something we can “turn on” to operate more adaptively or more innovatively than our preferred problem-solving style. By being more aware of what is required to solve the problem, and by listening to the team, gives an indication if more coping is required.

For example, with video conferencing use at an all-time high it can be harder to read body language. The more innovative leader can hold back ideas and let others speak at times. Consensually agree upon procedures for working together, and recognise that lack of detail makes the more adaptive anxious. The more adaptive leader should seek to speak up more, conscious that sometimes the problem may need to be reframed to find a more appropriate solution, and these uncertain times may require more flexibility in navigating the problem-solving process.

Often we’re too quick to critique when someone is not coping, rather than seeing when someone is trying hard to cope. Promote coping and recognise those who are working hard to maintain the team’s focus to solve problems together. The key is understanding your own and each other’s individual styles and respecting those differences.

A leader who can adjust accordingly and encourage the team to share when more adaptive or innovative behaviors are required to resolve problems, will be successful in improving team cohesion, even in today’s hybrid workplace.

About The Author

Curt Friedel
Curt Friedel

Dr Curt Friedel is a KAI practitioner and Director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech.