“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

–— Winston Churchill

“I am an optimist.  It does not seem too much use being anything else.”

— Winston Churchill

“The pessimist sees difficulty In every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity In every difficulty.”

Winston Churchill

“Keep my word positive. Words become my behaviors. Keep my behaviors positive. Behaviors become my habits. Keep my habits positive. Habits become my values. Keep my values positive. Values become my destiny.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”

— William James

“What we think, we become.”

— Buddha

Is the photo above illustrating an “issue”, “problem”, or “challenge”? Perhaps all three? In any case, why does it matter? Words are just words, right? Personal preference rather than meaningful?

Words matter

While trying to come up with some practical guidance linking communication and leadership, I have found that words are critically important to the real communication effectiveness of a leader.

Particular words can carry a message that goes much deeper than their dictionary meanings. Some meaning-identical words can be quite negative and discouraging while in other contexts can be very positive and motivating.

Take, for example, three leadership words that seem today to be used interchangeably and far too casually:

  • Problem
  • Issue
  • Challenge

I have a situation of some kind that seems to demand my attention. I might even have to do something about it. Does it actually matter which of the three terms above that I use to describe the situation?

You bet it does!

Words have deep meanings and can affect behavior

Leaders routinely have to present situations that require serious attention and action. They have to communicate each situation story in a way that tells the troops how to proceed.

There seems to be a lot of pressure these days to choose words that are “nice” and “socially acceptable” rather than clear and precise. For effectiveness, however, leaders generally need clarity and precision.

It turns out after a bit of digging that the terms issue, problem, and challenge have quite different meanings behaviorally. Each communicates the situation and action message in very important but dissimilar ways:

  • An issue is generally neither a problem nor a challenge.
  • Similarly, a problem is usually not an issue and not a challenge.
  • And challenge is something different from either of these.

How so?

Defining “issue”, “problem”, and “challenge” operationally for leaders

Let’s tackle issue vs. problem first since the distinction is very common and very important to effective leadership. Here is the crucial difference that I see:

  • An issue is a situation that can best be taken care of by some discussion and debate. This situation generally arises with a particular topic on which different people might have different views. An issue generally can be addressed over an extended period. It does not demand immediate action. It can be about something major. It may or may not be a negative situation.

  • A problem is typically a negative impact situation that requires relatively immediate attention and resolution to prevent it from worsening. It can be minor but important enough to pose a threat of significant damage or additional problems.

You can easily see the difference for a leader here.

  • The action message for an “issue” is to begin a productive discussion among stakeholders about its nature, possible ways to address it, and likely outcomes. Timeframe is less important than making sure that the right people are involved and that a reasonable consensus about action is achieved.

  • The action message for a “problem” is to get it fixed as quickly as possible. Timeframe is “now”. Involve only the people who are directly affected unless some external expertise or funding is required. “Get back to me when it’s done” type of message.

Challenge is different and the difference is also very important

Challenge is viewed by some people as simply putting a positive spin on the need to address a problem (and perhaps even an issue). “Let’s call this unbelievable-screwup-problem a challenge to make folks feel better about addressing it.”

A real leader, I believe, knows that this will rarely work as intended. High performers quickly see through most spin-based directives.

Challenge contains both a motivation to act in a special way and to take on the situation personally or together as a team.

Framing a problem as a challenge carries an implicit charge to address it creatively and even extra-specially. It calls for a great solution, not simply a quick-fix. There is also a sporting aspect to challenges: are you good enough to do this better than anyone else?

People accept challenges, either individually or as a team. Challenges are not typically order-driven because they call for more than a straightforward problem-fix solution. Challenges call for engagement. They are inherently positive.

A strong leader will intuitively understand the difference here and will frame the directive accordingly. A problem simply is to be fixed, asap. A challenge is a call for something much more, a creative and constructive solution – something beyond the ordinary.

An example here might help

Suppose your business experienced a very serious situation such as COVID. It caused a lockdown of your business and a sharp drop in sales as operations were greatly disrupted. Is this situation an issue, a problem, or a challenge?

It could well be all three.

The problem aspect has to be dealt with immediately in order to get operations back up and running. Your people have to be hooked up to web-based facilities and their interactions reorganized for remote locations. Technology, training, process changes.

The issue aspect is that the lockdowns and consequent changes may well become a permanent part of your business environment. This could affect nearly every business function and facility. You need to get everyone at upper levels thinking about what this means to their units and what they see as productive ways to accommodate the new environment. Timeframe to complete: maybe a year at most.

The challenge aspect is raised by the CEO who sees the great changes as an opportunity to make major, possibly cost-reducing, restructuring of the entire business.  This is addressed by assigning the task of thinking through what might be done to a small group of top people. The most creative people. Timeframe indefinite so it has to be tackled, discussed, and implemented in steps.

Will the CEO describe these as three issues, three problems, or three challenges? Certainly, some will do exactly this. Is it effective leadership? I don’t think so.

Each aspect has to be addressed differently so calling them the same thing is confusing. Calling them appropriately adds an essential degree of clarity.

Does it really matter how a leader uses these terms?

Some leaders appear to call every situation requiring action within a relevant timeframe as “challenges”. They don’t ever encounter situations as “issues” or “problems”. If this is their preference, why should it matter?

Why in fact should it matter if someone decides to replace these three terms with “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”? Terminology is a personal choice.

Effective leadership is the underlying objective

Clear direction and motivation are primary functions of effective leadership. A manager may simply get a problem fixed, quickly and expertly. A leader may just ask a manager to take care of the problem – make it go away – or decide to use the situation to motivate more inspired actions.

Suppose the situation is a nasty product defect. An effective manager can get this defect problem corrected quickly and that will be that. An effective leader, however, may see a new design approach as being the real solution and then frame the situation as a broader development challenge.

The situation is separated into more sharply defined aspects that require different approaches and timeframes.

An effective leader is almost never negative or pessimistic, at least in my experience. Optimism constrained by realism and constructiveness – positive thinking – is almost always the mark of a good leader.

Of course, one can get carried away with thinking positively.

Positive thinking is good?

The Mayo Clinic weighs in on thinking positively as a way to help reduce stress:

“Is your glass half-empty or half-full? How you answer this age-old question about positive thinking may reflect your outlook on life, your attitude toward yourself, and whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic — and it may even affect your health.”

“Indeed, some studies show that personality traits such as optimism and pessimism can affect many areas of your health and well-being. The positive thinking that usually comes with optimism is a key part of effective stress management. And effective stress management is associated with many health benefits. If you tend to be pessimistic, don’t despair — you can learn positive thinking skills.”

This seems to imply that seeing a problem or issue as, well, a problem or issue, is somehow “negative thinking”, pessimism. “We’re all gonna die” kind of thinking due to resulting stress.

An example: Our largest customer has just called in a panic to report that a failure in our product has shut down their entire production facility. It has to be fixed NOW. Positively NOW. I simply do not recall anyone who viewed such as situation as anything other than a major problem. Realistically, not positively (i.e., great learning opportunity) or negatively (i.e., we’ll never get this fixed). Those involved just got to work and fixed the problem as quickly as they could.

Mayo goes on to add that something called “self-talk” is involved here:

“Understanding positive thinking and self-talk:
Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations. Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way. You think the best is going to happen, not the worst.”

“Positive thinking often starts with self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. These automatic thoughts can be positive or negative. Some of your self-talk comes from logic and reason. Other self-talk may arise from misconceptions that you create because of lack of information.”

“If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you’re likely an optimist — someone who practices positive thinking.”

Maybe it’s just my limited experience but I simply can’t think of anyone I know in a leadership role being anything other than realistically and constructively focused on problem resolution. I don’t know much about self-talk.

Toxic positivity

Thinking positively apparently goes beyond reasonable levels at times and morphs into what The Psychology Group defines as “toxic positivity”:

“We define toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.”

“Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions. The truth is, humans are flawed. We get jealous, angry, resentful, and greedy. Sometimes life can just flat out suck. By pretending that we are “positive vibes all day,” we deny the validity of a genuine human experience.”

I don’t know about you but I can’t recall ever meeting business leaders who appeared to exhibit symptoms of “toxic positivity”. Just appropriate realism and constructiveness.

Looking at a situation as a “problem” is not negative thinking. You can frame it as such if you like but it can just as easily be framed positively as something that (positively) needs to be fixed, and quickly.

Challenges similarly are neither negative nor positive in their essence. You can probably find a way to frame a challenge as defined above either way, depending on your purpose for doing so. A bit hard for me at least to conjure up a challenge situation that might productively be viewed negatively.

Recognizing real difficulties is not negative thinking

Issues, problems, and challenges mostly present us with difficulties. Some will be very serious. It is vital however to recognize these operationally at the outset so that the situation can be addressed in the most productive manner.

Being surprised by positivity-obscured difficulties is normally not an effective leadership practice.

Difficulties are not negatives. They are simply facts that must be dealt with as part of whatever is done.

Words may not matter to the majority but they should matter a great deal to those in leadership positions where communication clarity is essential.

Bottom line:

Some quite capable people in vital leadership roles do not think that words matter in general – that words are just personal preference. Three very important words in particular – issues, problems, and challenges – seem especially misused by leaders. Does this truly matter for leadership effectiveness? You bet it does!

You just had to know that this was out there – somewhere. Joy Baldridge writing for the Operational Excellence Society, describes “The Words Matter Movement”:

“The Words Matter Movement involves being a practitioner of careful, thoughtful and deliberate positive communication. It is so easy to speak without thinking. To not genuinely listen and connect with people. When words are used in the wrong way it can be devastating.”

“Words are containers of power. So, how are you using yours? Words motivate or deflate thoughts hopes, dreams and actions. Words have the power to excite, inspire, elate, sadden, frighten, anger or give hope. Language is behavior. What you say matters. It shapes your environment, your work and your life.”

Chris Hazell seems to go a step further with this thought: “How Much Do Our Words Matter?”:

“Although we have always known it intuitively, science has confirmed the tremendous power our words have on ourselves, communities, and the world. In fact, words can literally shape the material world. The words we speak not only reflect, but shape our thoughts, and our thoughts shape the physical structure of our brains. An NPR interview between host Ira Flatow and science writer Sharon Begley, “Can Thoughts and Action Change Our Brains?” revealed how findings in neuroplasticity suggest the way we think can not only change the structure of our brains, but even lead to the re-growth of brain cells (something once considered impossible).”

“In a 2013 TED talk, “Does Language Bring Us Together or Pull Us Apart?” biologist Dr. Mark Pagel speaks of the potency of our words using a memorable phrase, explaining that through language we are able to “implant our ideas” into another’s mind. Language provides the rails on which thoughts ride. The words we use — and how we use them — matter immensely because they shape the way we perceive the world and participate within it.”

Words truly matter in leadership, as Steve Keating observes: “How You Say “It” Really Matters”:

“If you’re a leader you will at times need to tell people what to do. The least effective leaders must do that far more often than more effective leaders. But sooner or later even the most effective leader will need to give clear, concise direction. What some people might call an “order.””

“I don’t like the word “order” so I’m going to call it direction. The most effective leaders know this leadership fact: how you say something is every bit as important as the something you say. In other words, how you give the direction is just as important as the direction you give.”