How to Identify and Handle a People Problem

Sometimes as a leader, the hardest part is identifying – and then admitting – the real problem.

In one of my first vocational leadership roles, I managed a large retail division of a major department store. The division had several departments within it and each department had a separate department manager. Most of the departments were efficient, profitable, and easy to manage. One department, however, continued to fall behind the others. It was frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to get them to improve.

I was young and inexperienced, so I innocently thought the problem was me. If I could implement the right strategy in working with this department—find the right system—I could improve performance. I tested numerous systems to try to increase their productivity, but nothing seemed to work.

I was wrong in my assessment and the experience taught me a valuable lesson.

You can have the best systems, the best strategies, the best programs, and still struggle with the performance of a team.

Sometimes it’s not a systems problem.

Sometimes it’s strictly a people problem.

I realized the problem was the leader in this department. This person always said what I wanted to hear. She was nice to me personally. She talked a good game, but she was grossly underperforming and bringing her department down with her. Through due process, and after months of trying to coach and encourage this leader to improve, I eventually had to replace her leadership and the department dramatically improved almost instantly.

Since then I’ve always tried to remember to never try to handle a people problem with a systems approach.

Handle people problems with people.

This doesn’t mean you’ll always need to replace the people, but you seldom improve people problems with better systems. You improve people problems by improving people.

Many times, in my experience, we try to create systems when the problem isn’t a systems problem, it’s a people problem. The best systems won’t solve a people problem.

Knowing the difference between a systems problem and a people problem, and being mature enough to handle it, will make you a better leader.

Side note for the church: Churches are notorious for this. Churches often try to solve problems in people’s lives, for example, by creating rules, systems, programs, etc., designed to help make them better people. The problem is it’s not a systems problem. It’s not a program or committee problem. It’s a people problem. If their heart doesn’t change, the problems in their life will continue.

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This article originally appeared on and is reposted here by permission.

Ron Edmondson
Ron Edmondson

Ron Edmondson is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He revitalized two churches and planted two more.