01/19/2016 05:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 19, 2017

5 Ways to Enhance Your Problem-Solving Skills


A key part of living a life we love, I believe, comes from finding solutions to problems in our lives. Today we, as a global community, are face climate change; warfare; economic; inequalities; and out of whack work-life balance situations. The list goes on and on. There is no shortage of problems to solve on our quest to enhance our own lives and the lives of many. If we want to pass on a livable planet for generations to come, becoming sharper problem solvers ought to be number 1. on all our New Year's resolution lists.

If we don't get the problem right, we are not going to get the solutions right. At least ninety percent, if not ninety-five percent, of the problem in public policy making has to do with defining the problem correctly.
- Former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, Globaloney lecture Berkeley University (2011)

Even if the statistic is less than ninety percent, the path to solving a problem is scientifically said to be riddled with brainpower related hurdles, making even the smartest of us sometimes act like fools. However, despair not because just like with any other skill; we can improve problem solving through understanding the science and implementing it in our everyday lives.

I met up with Katarina Gospic, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc. and author of Make the Right Choice (2012), The Social Brain (2013) and co-author of the book Neuroleadership (2015) to ask her advice on how we all can become more skilled problem-solvers (see list below).

Gospic's books bring forth research, which points to brains first and foremost understanding its surroundings based on sharing in social relations, relations in which we not only exist but also thrive. The concept of a universal bond of sharing is in Zulu referred to as "Ubuntu" meaning "I am because we are".

In recent years, research on how the brain works, supports an inter-relational understanding where self-esteem has less to do with the self and more to do with social-esteem, or in other words, what we think others think about us. Making appropriate choices in solving problems is as much a matter of personal ability to process information, as it is the result of social relationships. For example, we might not ask others or ourselves a set of questions as a way to keep the group's "brain-work" running as easily and smoothly as possible; we avoid playing devil's advocate as to not rock the social boat. Not only do we tend to not find the real problem, we also grab a hold of a "cause" in a haste and rush towards a quick fix, chasing a sense of chemically induced reward sensation given to us by our brains for "being busy". We are rewarded by our biology for being "at it", and at the same time we also avoid falling into an emotional trench of uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings. We have the "same" brain today as 40,000 years ago and this "old brain" harbors a sense of impatience and unease in the face of the unknown. Understanding this old tendency might enhance our ability to spot when this is happening, allowing us at least a chance of choosing a more balanced response. All this you've probably heard before, however, let's dig a bit deeper.

"Ubuntu" shows up in a more cellular level as well. Our cells are designed to cooperate and share resources, or as Gospic describes it,

Imagine that brain cells would try to take all the oxygen from our hearts; it is easy to understand that our heart would die, as would our bodies (...) Cells that don't cooperate are cancerous, that's why they make us sick. - Gospic The Social Brain, (2013)

While we might say "whatever, I don't care" after being told something meant to blame or exclude us, however, research shows that regions in the brain involved in physical pain are also activated when experiencing psychological pain. Social exclusion worsens the body's ability to manage inflammations due to a decreased capacity of the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol to do its job. An unkind remark meant to push us away is, stress-wise, interpreted similarly to a punch in the face. Perceived pain and the increase in inflammation is pretty much the chief culprit when it comes to depression, rheumatism and cardiovascular disease. When we sometimes in frustration exclaim: "your killing me!", this, Gospic points to can be quite a literal description of what is taking place in the body. The brain-body connection is well illustrated in a study she brings up in The Social Brain. The study shows that during a ten-year time span, employees who reported not being satisfied with management had a twenty-five percent increased risk of suffering a heart attack compared to employees whom did not report having such issues.

Note, however, that there is no one size fits all within this conversation. Our brain's tendency is to want to belong. At times this tendency enables efficient teamwork towards solving a problem, and at times this tendency becomes a trap. Instead of taking the time to find the actual cause we rush towards excluding and blaming others, making them the "problem". This makes us feel good because we are "doing something about it", however, we fail to see that we've become socially cancerous. Because managers can have a heart wrenching effect on the people around, it is especially important for organizations to relate to these findings. But of course we could all benefit from enhancing our problem-solving skills. When faced with solving a problem start by asking yourself:

1. What is the problem? Could lack of revenue be a potential symptom of not asking: how can we create employees becoming wowed by their work, everyday? Avoid platitudes and define the problem in a simple way; who does what to whom, what are the consequences and why should we care?

2. How great is the problem? What are the effects of this problem? What, aside from avoiding undesirable consequences, could be gained from finding a solution?

3. What causes are most likely behind the problem? It is the attitude of people based on personal pasts, or more so the technical process which when altered balances relationships? Be precise.

4. What alternative solutions are there to this problem? How much will solving the problem cost? For how long can we work on the problem? Do we have the abilities to manage the solutions needed?

5. Which is the most optimal solution and how do we move into action? The most optimal solution needs to be cost effective, meaning that the benefits of solving the problem outweighs the costs associated with solving it. The chosen strategy is something the team can fulfill and out of all the alternative options this is the most beneficial one.

Gospic concludes by bringing up that not all problems call for an intended solution, at least not right away. At times we need to put the problem aside and let it resolve itself thanks to the influence of time. The mistake is lesson enough and a lecture would only cause interpersonal friction. Sometimes, letting it be can be the most adequate solution to a problem. However, prior to making that call, let's go through the list shall we? 

• Gospic's first books are in the process of being translated into English. In the meanwhile you may find Gospic's thesis on Neuroeconomics of interest. Gospic also recommends one of her heroes M.D. Oliver Sack's (1985) revolutionary book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as a great introduction to how the brain works.

• The author of this blog post does not have a commercial interest involved in the making of this post, intent is solely to foster awareness through the sharing of independent research and other educational information