I’ve made a lot of mistakes learning how to be a manager. One trap I’ve fallen into particularly frequently has been failing to recognize “Groundhog Day” problems.
In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil Connors is trapped in a time loop and has to relive the same day — over, and over, and over. A Groundhog Day problem is one that keeps resurfacing, despite your best efforts to address it. Each time it reappears, you feel like you’ve returned to the beginning and haven’t made any progress. For a people manager, this generally means a behavior, an attitude, or a complaint that you just can’t seem to help someone work through.
The real danger here is not so much the lost time or wasted effort. It’s the relationship damage that can happen as a result. You may feel like the other person doesn’t want to resolve the issue, is refusing to understand your perspective, or is simply incapable of making progress. You can become frustrated and start to avoid interacting with them, project your lack of trust through tone or body language, or stop looking to create opportunities for your colleague.
I’ve found that in every case, the problem is that we’re focused on the wrong thing. The behavior or attitude is a manifestation of a deeper issue, so we fail to get the desired outcome because the core issue remains unresolved.
Finding the Problem
What’s lacking is not more action plans or accountability. What’s needed is a safe conversation with a real intent to listen and learn. Instead of damaging the relationship, this approach is almost always a relationship builder. It creates trust and demonstrates a genuine intention to understand and help.
Generally, these types of problems come down to one of four root causes:
The real issue doesn’t feel safe to discuss.
Often, the employee with the issue has a deeper concern they don’t feel safe discussing. Perhaps it feels embarrassing or unprofessional or a bit personal. Folks often won’t volunteer this type of information and can instead raise a related concern that’s safer to talk about. Or perhaps they’ll abstract the concern so much that you don’t understand the problem and try to solve the wrong thing.
They don’t want to ask for special treatment.
Maybe you have a strong team player who doesn’t want to ask for special treatment. They don’t want to ask for an exception, or maybe they don’t realize it’s possible to bend constraints. Maybe they don’t feel they have the social capital to ask for special consideration, or they feel that they may be seen in a negative light for doing so.
The real problem is unclear, even to them.
It may simply be that the person is doing their best to resolve the surface issue, but they’re missing data or perspective to really understand that there’s a deeper issue and that you’re both focusing on the wrong thing.
Too many other priorities are causing someone to lose focus.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of busyness. People have good intentions, but life gets hectic, and a problem keeps resurfacing because folks lose focus over time.
Breaking the Cycle
When I encounter a Groundhog Day problem now, I try to approach the situation with the following steps:
- Build real empathy for your colleague, and make sure you have a genuine desire to partner in finding a solution. You can’t fake this. If your real goal is to share your judgment and impose your proposed solution, you will fail — and probably do a lot of damage. You’ll worsen the current situation and make the next one more difficult to handle. Make sure you have your head in the right space, and don’t engage until you do.
- Tell your colleague that there’s an important — but not urgent — conversation you’d like to have with them. Ask if today is a good day. (Folks almost always want to have the conversation immediately because nobody wants to have that sort of thing hanging in the air.) If it isn’t, make it clear that you’re happy to wait.
- During the meeting, explain your clear, concrete observations. Do not throw out theories or opinions or judgments. Explain that you’re concerned, and ask them to help you understand. Remember, you have to actually want to understand. If you’re just waiting for the other person to talk so you can get to the part where you tell them what to do differently, this is going to go badly.
- Thank them for sharing, and save the problem solving for the next meeting. I’m a slow thinker, so this is key for me. If someone has just shared important, new information, whatever thoughts I had coming into the meeting probably need to be reconsidered in light of what I’ve learned, and it’s better if I can have some space. This also backs up the “this isn’t important but not urgent” message you’ve likely delivered earlier.
- When it’s time for problem-solving, always ask the other person to drive the plan. They know themselves better than you do. They know the pressures and constraints they’re under. They understand what motivation works for them. It’s okay to present options if you think there are solutions the other person isn’t aware of or doesn’t want to ask for. But always let them form the plan. They’ll be much more likely to be successful executing on a plan they’ve made than on one you’ve made.
I still catch myself getting frustrated sometimes before I recognize that I’m dealing with a Groundhog Day problem, but I’ve found this approach to be remarkably more effective than pointing out missed expectations and telling a person how I want to see them change.
If you have a better approach or some refinements on these steps, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!