There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Ghost Problems: When Your Past is Haunting You

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I was recently asked to help two teams overcome some perceived issues between them, and fairly quickly in my effort to diagnose the issue it became clear that the biggest cause of the problems they were having was that they had problems previously. When ‘ghost problems’ are real enough to be the ongoing cause of problems its time to take a different approach; until you exercise the ghosts of the past resolving current and future issues will be much tougher.

When something that was a problem becomes a significant contributing reason that something is a problem you have a Ghost Problem.

Ghost Problems stem from using history unfairly or inappropriately. A Ghost Problem can be described this way: something happened in the past, often a very real issue, which has since been resolved or left behind; but the unwillingness to let it go becomes the source of new problems. Its easy to confuse a Ghost Problem with the original problem, but they are in fact often very different, and require different approaches to resolving.

How does one exercise a Ghost Problem?

Ghosts, like many mythical creatures, exist because we believe in them, and when we stop believing in them they vanish (unless you believe Ghosts actually exist, but that’s another issue completely).

Ghost problems behave the same way, and exist because we give them life by believing in them. If we decide to stop using the past unfairly the ghost problem often goes away. Sometimes the only real problem is a ghost issue, and deciding to stop believing it exists is enough to put things back as they should be.

Holding grudges is something we all are susceptible to doing, but they don’t belong in the work place. Strong leaders know how to use history responsibly, fairly re-evaluating current perceptions in line with the changing dynamics of the business environment. A leader that lets themselves or their team get stuck in time, unwilling to reconsider something based on new data, will find themselves surrounded by ghost problems. Succeeding in business can be hard enough in its own right, why let ghost problems also get in the way?

Deciding to not a hold a grudge, or to stop using history unfairly, can be easier said than done. To help with the process of letting go it may be necessary to provide closure of the past event. I prefer the path of forgiveness or reconciliation, where the party holding the grudge confronts the party they have the grudge about, admitting the grudge, and forgiving the previously blamed party for whatever misdeeds were done.

When folks feel like a grudge is influencing their decision I ask them to admit it openly, in essence asking for help to overcome the emotional tug the grudge induces. Both parties have to be willing to participate respectfully in this effort; Ghost Problems can survive if even one person continues to believe in them.


Written by joshuahoward

August 7, 2009 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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