Project Management Institute

I'm a problem solver and THAT is the problem

Projectivity Solutions


An overabundance of a strength becomes a weakness. When leaders identify themselves as an expert problem solver, they look for problems everywhere and uncovering a good crisis becomes even more enticing. There is a seductive me-centric vortex created by being the expert problem solver. However, this attitude becomes career limiting. In this paper understand how this seductive vortex manifests between individuals, within a team, and among organizations. Learn how to spot the symptoms, how chaos spreads, and how to overcome this dilemma. As a leader our ability to inspire, motivate, and influence others to produce collaborative results requires a balance between technical and interpersonal skills. Building and sustaining trust-based relationships and resolving the heart of conflict is the pivotal source of our influence.


As project managers (PMs) and leaders, we solve problems. Solving problems is what we do; solving problems is what we are good at. We use these skills to set project direction, inspire, motivate, and influence others to produce collaborative results (Bristol & Yeatts, 2010, p. 1). We plan and build schedules so the project team has a clear understanding of work expectations. When deviations occur, we fix what needs correcting. Experience has taught us that cumulative uncorrected deviations can lead to re-work, tumble into confusion, mushroom into turmoil, and escalate into conflict. As a problem solver, we use our business acumen, technical skills, project management knowledge, and interpersonal competencies to manage events before the whirlwinds of chaos divert resources from timely and accurate project completion. The pressures of missed delivery dates, poor quality, and cost overruns increase the wind velocity. As pressure mounts, individual team member differences emerge. These individual differences left unmanaged reduce team collaboration and distract members from producing results. This escalation turns into the Problem Solvers Vortex™ and spawns the mistreatment of others. As leaders, to resolve the heart of a conflict, we need the ability to detect wind shifts and influence others into appropriate action. Unknowingly, we can make matters worse even with the best of intentions as our problem-solver ability becomes more me-centric and diminishes coworker abilities and self-confidence. As a leader, avoiding the Problem Solvers Vortex™ by helping things go right is highly contingent on our interpersonal skills to build trust-based relationships.

As project leaders, our authenticity helps to create a climate of mutual trust (Kouzes & Posner, 2002). Our capacity to solve problems requires balanced competencies and ties directly to our ability to build and sustain trust-based relationships. Succinctly stated by Lencioni (2002), “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without trust, team work is all but impossible” (p. 195). Lencioni (2002) ascertains the lack of trust creates the common team dysfunctions, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, accountability avoidance, and inattention to results (Bristol & Yeatts, 2010, p. 1). Separately, each dysfunction diminishes a team's ability to deliver the right results and collectively creates complex leadership challenges. Being an expert problem solver may be our Achilles heel and become a career limiting behavior (CLB). Kaplan & Kaiser, in Stop Overdoing Your Strengths state, “We found that taking a strength to an extreme is always detrimental to performance, but even a mild tendency to overdo it can be harmful” (2009, para. 6).

Vortex Detection – Awakening our Senses

To transform turmoil into collaborative results requires self-reflection and an objective look at our mindset. To enhance our interpersonal skills, we need to direct our attention to the turmoil indicators, better understand challenging behavior patterns, and recognize basic behavioral intent. With enhanced detection capacity, leaders are better equipped to self-manage and manage relationships.

Mindset – What are we thinking?

Johari Window

The Johari window (Exhibit 1), created in 1955 by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (Jo-Hari), provides a framework for an objective reflection about our awareness of self and others. Ideally, as transparent and authentic leaders, others will know the majority of our behaviors (Handy, 2000). According to Lencioni, “The most important action a leader must take to encourage team trust is to demonstrate vulnerability” (Lencioni, 2007, Loc 1932). A leader achieves vulnerability by disclosing to the team or a colleague something relevant that was previously unknown. Equally important is the systematic self-discovery process to reduce personal blind spots. As a leader, others observe our blind spot behaviors, which inadvertently invite colleagues to respond in ways we see as problematic. As I self-identify as an expert problem solver, we are vulnerable to seeing others as a problem. This perspective begins to stir the vortex related wind. Consequently, enhancing our interpersonal skills requires leading a self-examined life to minimize the unknown, reduce the façade, and shrink blind spots. The Johari window is foundational for personal discovery.

Johari Window (Luft & Ingham, 1955)

Exhibit 1 – Johari Window (Luft & Ingham, 1955)

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman's 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, provides another framework (Exhibit 2) for building and sustaining trust-based relationships. Emotional quotient (EQ) improves when we develop personal and social competence skills. Mersino (2007) states compelling reasons for PMs and leaders to enhance their (EQ) in order to avoid poor decision making, reduced collaboration, and low awareness of others. Significantly, Dr. Friedman (Frieland & Frieland, 2013) describes how the amygdala (Exhibit 3) hijacks our capacity for creative and logical solutions while flooding our body with cortisol and adrenaline. This survival instinct, while useful in some situations, significantly reduces our effectiveness in a professional setting. As a leader, recognizing and identifying our emotions, and an awareness of the emotions of others is an essential interpersonal competence.

Emotional Quotient (EQ) (Goleman, 1996)

Exhibit 2 – Emotional Quotient (EQ) (Goleman, 1996)


Exhibit 3 – Amygdala

Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchtik's, PhD., emotions wheel (Exhibit 4) and emotions table provide leaders with a graphic reference to become familiar with the basic emotions, blended composition, opposites, intense forms, and mild forms (Plutchik, 2002). Plutchik's distinctions and graphic representation helps build an emotion differentiation ability. Discerning various types of emotions and associated behaviors allows a leader to calibrate to significant relationships. As a leader, the ability to correlate emotions and behaviors establishes the foundation for communication flexibility.

Wheel of Emotions (Plutchtik, 2002)

Exhibit 4 –Wheel of Emotions (Plutchtik, 2002)

Table of Emotions (Plutchtik, 2002)

Exhibit 5 - Table of Emotions (Plutchtik, 2002)

Communication styles and motivators

Leader's best use communication styles and motivators as a filter to understand behavior and create exquisitely designed communication strategies for each person. A word of caution… this knowledge becomes a problem-solver's weapon when used to label behavior or pass judgment. Knowing our personal communication and motivator bias helps us as leaders to better self-manage. With increased awareness of the behaviors and emotions of others, we can now build an inventory of effective communication strategies. Alessandra & O'Connor, (1996) and Bonnstetter & Suiter, (2013) identify four-communication styles (Exhibit 6) and associated behaviors (Exhibit 7):

  1. D – when problem-solving – aggressive or reflective
  2. I – when influencing others to actions – passion or logic
  3. S – how the environment pace effects communication – slower to change or quick to change
  4. C – how processes and rules effect communication – comply by the rules or pioneer new ways
DISC Behaviors Wheel

Exhibit 6 – DISC Behaviors Wheel

Communication Style Behaviors (Bonnstetter & Suiter, 2013)

Exhibit 7 – Communication Style Behaviors (Bonnstetter & Suiter, 2013)

Bonnstetter and Suiter's (2013) research validates that people have unique behavioral styles and under stress these style differences can create conflict (Exhibit 8). We significantly enhance our interpersonal leadership skills when we know our behavioral style strengths and weaknesses and can identify the behavioral styles of our colleagues. With this awareness, we can Speak the Language of Leadership (Bristol & Yeatts, 2010) demonstrating the ability to adapt to others and speak with them as they experience the world. This style flexibility allows us as leaders to sustain rapport. By refining this fundamental communication skill, we can respond appropriately to stressed or non-stressed communications patterns. Additionally, we deepen our understanding of the human condition by applying Brinkman, & Kirschner's (2012) framework for understanding difficult behaviors. In essence, everyone's behavior is a mixture of people or task focus and reflective or aggressive assertiveness. Paying attention to the associated emotional and behavioral signals, enhances our EQ social awareness and our relationship effectiveness as we discover effective communication strategies. Developing this communication competence, we are better equipped to help teammates, colleagues, and clients operate at their personal best.

Communication Styles Under Stress (Bonnstetter & Suiter, 2013)

Exhibit 8 – Communication Styles Under Stress (Bonnstetter & Suiter, 2013)

Bonnstetter and Bowers state, “Knowledge of an individual's motivators, help to tell WHY they do things” (Bonnstetter, 1990-2013, p. 25). Discovering a colleague's motivators helps us as leaders align natural enthusiasm with work assignments (Exhibit 9).

Motivators (Bonnstetter and Bowers, 2013)

Exhibit 9 – Motivators (Bonnstetter and Bowers, 2013)

Vortex Exploration – How Chaos Spreads

The seeds of conflict are dormant around every aspect of life, both professional and personal. When we are inattentive, under pressure, experiencing tension, stress, or fatigue we are vulnerable and may slip into less productive behavior. Diminished awareness increases as a leader creates box-like barriers with and an increasing me-centric orientation. We then begin to treat others with impatience as we see them as an obstacle, hampering the achievement to timely delivery or a quality result. Suffer an amygdala high jacking and our ability to self-manage becomes impaired. This instantaneous blind spot shift is unknown to us, yet experienced by others, opening the way for blame, critical judgments, or passive aggressive behavior. To avoid the swirling seduction of the Problem Solver Vortex™ we need to understand the mechanics of how chaos spreads. As leaders, this knowledge helps us make choices, so we are more equipped to help others and help things go right.

Indications – What to look for

Indicators (Exhibit 10) that chaos is forming are most frequently ignored. Paying attention to these cues and associating the indicators to emotions and behaviors provides us an opportunity to build viable strategies to invite improvement. Brinkman, & Kirschner's (2012) intent framework (Exhibit 11) provides a simple filter for understanding difficult behaviors. Task-oriented people want to get the work done or get the work done right while a people-orientation is about getting along with or getting appreciation from other people. A high task-oriented person may want actions taken quickly, over-look details, and be tightly goal focused. When producing a quality result, getting it done right, is the highest precedence, there may be a tendency to slow down and dig into the details. As getting along with people becomes the driving orientation, there is a tendency to seek harmony by being less assertive and introducing change at a slower pace. Soliciting appreciation from other people requires an intense people-orientation, manifested by enthusiasm, rapid speech, and omnidirectional thinking behaviors.

Problem Solver Vortex Indicators

Exhibit 10 – Problem Solver Vortex Indicators

Type of Difficult People (Brinkman, & Kirschner, 2012)

Exhibit 11 – Type of Difficult People (Brinkman, & Kirschner, 2012)

The Seeds of Chaos

There are three principles in a man's being and life, the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean, and I don't do what I say.

Martin Buber

Behavior and emotions provide indicators of the vortex in motion. Helping things go right requires a more refined awareness. Martin Buber's philosophic work, I and Thou (1923), provides a helpful distinction between an individual's way of consciousness, interaction, and being when engaging with others. Buber's basic modes are word-pairs termed: “I-Thou” and “I-It.” When “I-Thou” reflects our way of being, others in our life count the same as we count. With a we-centric orientation, I am aware of others dreams, hopes, fears, and concerns as much as my own. With an “I-It” or me-centric orientation, I experience others less as a human and more as an object. Furthermore, as an object a person can become an obstacle – blocking my progress, vehicle – a tool to provide an advantage, or an irrelevancy – just invisible to my awareness. Intensifying the seeds of chaos, a prolonged “I-It” interaction, I can adopt a “Better Than…, Must Be Seen As…, or I Deserve…” attitude creates more heightened interpersonal barriers or boxes. The accumulating interpersonal boxes spawn a need to justify my poor behaviors, thus aggravating the situation. This justification only sustains our invitation for mistreatment.

Chaos Between Individuals

Like all storms, the Problem Solver Vortex™ winds begin softly and may go unnoticed. The velocity increases when I have a sense to help a colleague struggling to complete constructing a schedule; yet resist this sense to help. Instantaneously, I begin to justify my behavior by telling myself “he's never helped me… why should I help him?” As I begin to see my colleague as lazy, I do not help and avoid contact, maybe even speak to others about his inability to construct a schedule. Because of my actions, my colleague is invited to see me as a selfish person and hard to work with. As the vortex wind speed increases, by being “wronged” by me, my colleague returns my mistreatment, pulling us deeper into the vortex and additional mistreatments. Inflamed by this poor treatment, I speak with other co-workers about the injustice inflicted upon me, while concurrently my colleague begins to recruit allies in his war against me. When I resisted my initial sense to help, the price for my choice is a “blindness to how delicious I find suffering and the cloak of innocence I wear in that suffering. Refusing to forgive, my wrong then is double. I condemn myself to ongoing misery and woe” (The Arbinger Institute, 1998, p. 60).

Chaos Between Organizations

As an individual gathers allies, this collusion (The Arbinger Institute, 2008, p. 51) can easily spread to a departmental level conflict. For example, a semiconductor manufacturing company PM may need to transform turmoil when sales personnel consistently annoy engineers by disregarding standard machine configurations. Engineering begins to see sales as people with no integrity – promising anything to secure a contract. The engineers begin to analyze the deal, only to find components specified that severely compromises machine quality and performance. The analysis yields a series of detailed questions for sales. Concurrently, the customer is clamoring for the machine arrival date. Now under pressure, sales threatens to escalate the slow design approval to the executive level because the engineers always slow down the process. With threats delivered, engineering views sales as crybaby prima donnas who do not follow the rules and bully others to get what they want. The engineers respond by searching the historical files of evidence proving the bad record of accomplishment of sales. When manufacturing operations staff discovers that design modifications create delivery date obstacles, sales recruits new allies against engineering. At this point, the vortex is in full spin, only to start another cycle of collusion (Exhibit 12) with the placement of another order. A leader interrupts the collusion cycle by engaging team members in the transformation process.

Collusion Diagram (Arbinger 2008)

Exhibit 12 - Collusion Diagram (Arbinger 2008)

Vortex Transformation – Restoring order

Transformation Process – Getting out of the Vortex

The Problem Solver Vortex™ is only a metaphor about our relationships with other people, in order to help things go right, and we need to self-manage and use our interpersonal skills. The Anatomy of Peace (Exhibit 13) depicts the four-step process (The Arbinger Institute, 2008, p. 176) to escape a tightening vortex spiral. The essential first step recognizes the vortex indicators, ideally just as the winds increase. Second, re-connect to your resourcefulness. Step in to your EQ, activate creativity and reason, while gaining inner clarity and peace. Third, as our experience becomes more objective, now is the time to invoke curiosity, allowing us to ponder deeply the situation from a new perspective.

Getting Out Process – Arbinger 2008

Exhibit 13 – Getting Out Process – Arbinger 2008

Ponder Deeply

As a leader, our role obligates us to reflect and consider the challenges, pains and burdens each person may be dealing with, both past and present. As I review their motivators and communication style, I contemplate if I have inadvertently added to their turmoil. Then, I need to reflect deeply on how I may have added to those burdens and challenges. I deepen this inquiry by asking myself three questions:

  1. How am I a problem for others?
  2. What can I do to help others?
  3. What do I need to do to make things go right?

When we genuinely contemplate any conflict situation afresh and engage our natural curiosity, we access the creative and logic centers of our brain in addition to our native motivator and communication capabilities. Accelerating solution discovery is the shift from a me-centric to a we-centric way-of-being.

Final Thoughts

As leaders, business acumen and technical skills provide an expected footing for results. Refined and enhanced interpersonal skills dramatically increase our ability to inspire, motivate, and influence others to achieve collaborative results. The foundational Johari, EQ, DISC, and Motivators models help us understand how people see and make sense of the world. These frameworks help us better understand our personal beliefs and behaviors. These models are not tools to be used for stereo-typing or labeling others. These interpersonal tools help us understand how or why people behave and allow us to adapt our behaviors. We are not our behaviors. If our current approach is not achieving the desired outcome, we can change and adopt another approach. Ultimately, knowing how others process experience and knowing our interpersonal strengths and weaknesses allow us to build a collaborative team culture. As leaders, executives entrust teammates to our care and resources for our productive use. We have an obligation to deliver business results, help others, and help things go right. A leader's ability to transform conflict requires a deeper understanding of the human condition and a we-centric orientation. This deep understanding is rooted in a way-of-being that honors the humanity of everyone and inspires each of us to rise to our full potential.


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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014 Philip Bristol, CMC, PMP, PMI-SP, CPHDA
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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