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Collaborative Problem Solving in the Workplace

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

Everyone has had that person at work whose behavior frustrates you. It might be your colleague, your boss, a report of yours, or even your CEO. Difficult behavior in the workplace strains team dynamics, damages workplace morale and culture, and leads to enormous losses in productivity. If the behavior doesn’t cross the line into something that can be reported to HR, is there anything besides grin and bear it?

Thanks to the latest in neuropsychological research, the answer is yes! But the key is understanding why some colleagues behave in a challenging way in the first place. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they aren’t behaving that way because they are simply not trying hard enough to get along with their team members or because they like the attention their behavior brings them. They aren’t difficult because they want to be. They lack the skill, not the will to behave better. What skills? Skills like flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving. Some of these employees can be incredibly talented in other ways, contributing unique gifts to their work, but their behavior can also threaten team dynamics so it must be addressed.

Collaborative Problem Solving is an approach that operationalizes these key findings from brain science to address some of the most challenging behavior in some of the most challenging settings. The method has been battle-tested. It works. The lessons learned from helping people in places like correctional facilities and psychiatric facilities apply just about anywhere we struggle to manage someone’s behavior. You can put them to use right away in your workplace.

The approach starts with a simple mindset which helps us maintain some empathy and patience for our colleagues who can be pretty challenging to work alongside at times. Begin by assuming that underneath their difficult behavior your colleague probably has reasonable concerns, but they lack the skills to express and pursue those concerns more reasonably. Next use the following proven problem-solving roadmap that not only reduces challenging behavior and solves problems but will also help your colleague (and maybe even yourself!) build the skills they may struggle with. The roadmap has three simple steps:

  1. EMPATHIZE: Bring up the issue in as non-threatening and reassuring a way as possible. Then work hard to understand your colleague’s concern or perspective about any specific problem you are trying to solve. You might need to do some detective work. Ask questions and take guesses to try to gather information from them. Remind yourself that while you may not like their behavior, they probably have reasonable concerns leading them to behave that way. And also remember that empathizing does not mean agreeing or disagreeing. It simply means understanding. If they are suspicious, simply explain what you are trying to do. Only once you understand their point of view, do you proceed to the second step.
  2. SHARE YOUR CONCERN: Next, let your colleague know what your concern or perspective is about the specific issue without using blaming language. You can give those some thought before the conversation so you are already prepared when you get to this point. Then, only once you have clarified both sets of concerns, should you move to the third and final step.
  3. BRAINSTORM: Invite your colleague to brainstorm possible solutions to the problem, but make sure they are solutions that address both your colleague’s and your concerns. Try giving them the first chance to generate a solution. This will increase investment and buy-in. You can throw your ideas out also. But whoever suggests an idea make sure you collaborate to test out the potential solutions to ensure that they address both parties’ concerns and are actionable. Once you arrive at what seems like a good solution, make a plan to enact it and check back in with each other to see how it panned out. Keep in mind that most plans require a little tweaking before a durable solution is found.

If this process sounds too simple to really work, the data don’t lie. Not only will you arrive at durable solutions to problems with colleagues, but both you and your colleague will have practiced a host of critical skills in the process. Skills like communication, perspective-taking, staying calm in the midst of frustration, empathy, flexibility, creativity, and collaboration.

One of the keys to dealing effectively with challenging behavior is not contributing to it. When someone behaves poorly, it frustrates us and our responses often tend to make matters worse. That’s because dysregulation, as we psychologists call it, is contagious. When we get dysregulated, we don’t have access to the smart part of our brains. We operate from much lower down in the brain, meaning that we often then have two people without access to good, rational problem-solving skills. So how do we stay calm in the midst of challenging behavior? First, remember skill, not will so you don’t take the behavior personally or retaliate. Then, practice the three steps above. The first step will help calm your colleague and ensure that s/he will be more likely to listen to your point of view in the second step. Finally, collaborating to find a mutually satisfactory solution in the third step gives both parties some measure of control which is also calming.

Just be prepared that if you practice this new mindset and three-step process to address issues with a difficult colleague, you may be asked to do it again. After all, the skills to solve problems collaboratively are in high demand in every workplace.


Ablon, JS. Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work. New York: Penguin Random House; 2018.

C. M. Pearson and C. L. Porath, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It (New York: Portfolio, 2009).

C. Porath and C. Pearson, “The Price of Incivility,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2013, accessed April 3, 2017,


This article originally appeared in Psychology Today

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