Dilemmas Are Problems That Never Get Resolved
Understanding the difference between a problem and a dilemma changes everything. Problems can be solved. Dilemmas can only be coped with. Knowing which one you confront is essential for engaging a strategy that might work.
A problem occurs when something goes wrong. Mistakes, errors, defects, accidents, poor judgement, and underestimation can produce a problem that falls into a leader’s lap. Attempting to fix a problem requires leaders to identify the root cause and then correct it.
Dilemmas, on the other hand, reflect complex issues that are highly interdependent and laced with human values. Like the whack-a-mole game played by children, when we believe we have successfully resolved a dilemma, another highly charged issue pops up, seemingly out of nowhere.
Managing a dilemma is about accepting that it can’t be resolved and treating it accordingly. Instead of trying to settle the issue by suggesting a solution or cure, good leaders design strategies to keep it from spiraling out of control.
Finding a framework from which to understand the complexity of the situation and the emotions and values surrounding it enables leaders to address it without a false attempt at extinguishing it. Ironically, leaders learn that when they treat a dilemma as a problem and try to fix it, they invariably make it worse.
Think of treating a dilemma as ironing a feather pillow. We can push the issues around but we can never flatten or resolve them. By accepting that they can’t eliminate a cause that doesn’t exist in isolation, leaders learn to manage dilemmas successfully and keep the consequences they produce from undermining success.
Issues like disloyalty between friends, intractable conflict, suspicion of motives, team member anxiety, distrust between colleagues, organizational grapevines and rumors, disrespect for a leader, among other examples, are not problems that can be permanently solved. They are dilemmas that must be managed.
Leaders almost by definition are well-equipped to resolve the problems they face. Knowing when they confront a dilemma instead gives them an edge toward keeping a lid on a challenge that won’t go away.
As the writer H.L. Mencken postulates, “Life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas.” Accepting that both problems and dilemmas exist and they are wildly different is half the battle.