Problem Solving at Work: It’s Not What You Know, but WHO You Know

Topic(s): leadership, trust, work environment
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (September, 2013)
Article: The Relational Antecedents of Voice Targeted at Different Leaders
Authors: W. Liu, S. Tangirala, R. Ramanujam
Reviewed by: Cynthia Maupin

When it comes to problem solving at work, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you know as much as who you know.

Employees who work directly with products or customers have first-hand experience with some of their company’s biggest issues. But many don’t have the influence or resources to solve those problems without assistance from organizational leaders. Who they turn to for help is often more about their relationships with the various leaders than on the person’s position, or company protocol.

A recent study examined the role supervisors have on problem solving at work, both within and between organizations. The authors found that employees who have strong relationships with their direct supervisor feel more comfortable communicating issues with them, which ultimately promotes positive organizational change.

The study also found that the strength of workplace communication depends on how close the employee’s direct supervisor is with his or her boss. If employees are comfortable with their direct supervisor, but perceive the supervisor’s relationship with their boss as weak, they tend to share less with their supervisor, because they don’t believe them to have the influence needed to initiate meaningful organizational changes.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the study found that, with the flattening of organizational hierarchies, more employees are comfortable with going to their boss’s boss in order to get things done, especially if the employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor was poor.

In other words, the opportunity to communicate with more than one level of leadership within an organization gives employees a better chance to solve critical problems. Why is this important?

For frontline employees: Your position within a company and the relationships you make are valuable to the organization’s ultimate success. You can utilize your relationships– not only with your supervisor, but also your supervisor’s boss if necessary– in order to get important problems solved.

For first-level supervisors: You need to build strong relationships with both your subordinates and your own supervisor in order to properly manage your leadership resources.

For second level supervisors: Having a strong relationship with the supervisors you manage will enable employees to trust their ability to solve problems. But if employees are continually coming to you instead of their direct supervisor with their issues, it may indicate problems with that supervisor’s management style.

Long story short, better relationships build better, stronger organizations. So start investing in those you work with to solve workplace problems more efficiently and effectively.