The science behind Donald Trump’s approach to problem solving

A masterclass in how not to do things.

by Curt Friedel
Last Updated: 22 Jul 2020

As ever Donald Trump has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

From his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic to his corrosive response to the Black Lives Matter protests, now the president faces the US Supreme Court challenge over his tax returns. It’s not surprising to see him sliding down the popularity polls behind Democratic rival Joe Biden. 

So why is the president’s judgement on such major issues so flawed at times? 

Forty years of research by Michael Kirton, using his Kirton Adaption-Innovation (KAI) Inventory theory, suggests that we all have a preferred approach to problem solving.

Some people take a more ‘innovative’ approach to problem solving that prefers less structure, looks outside of the system or does things differently. Other people take a more 'adaptive' approach that seeks to tweak the existing system and work within its boundaries to resolve issues. It’s something we can’t change easily, like being right or left-handed. 

Neither problem-solving style is better than the other but good leaders are self-aware of their own style and of others'. They’re conscious of how their traits can affect their decision making and those around them, using this insight to pull together different styles to work in harmony to resolve a problem. Something the increasingly combative Trump appears to lack.

Trump the ‘innovator’

The President displays classic traits of being more innovative leader; thinking of ideas outside of the box often because he's unaware of there even being a box, bending the rules, oblivious of any structure, and working way beyond the boundaries of the ‘system’.  

We’ve seen how he is often criticised for doing and saying things that are not customary in his position, like discrediting the FBI and certain judges, and claiming total authority as president of the United States, which tests the boundaries of the US constitution. 

He frequently goes off script, not willing to be confined to the structure of a written speech, and often flits from idea to idea. The fact he’s moved political parties five times before making president shows his lack of interest in group conformity.

These innovative tendencies to go beyond the boundaries and make radical change have been his downfall over the global pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement. Both are internally-oriented issues for which people were looking for structure and resolution involving detail, legislation or policy change within the current US political system, something which goes against Trump’s natural problem-solving style. 

If a policy isn’t working, an innovator like Trump simply takes new information to develop a totally different set of policies, with little concern for how current policy should be safeguarded.

For example, on 16 April, Trump announced a three-phase plan to reopen the US for business during the pandemic, based on each state’s ability to flatten the COVID-19 infection curve, but by 12 May, Trump was already advocating for states to reopen regardless of the fact that COVID-19 cases weren’t decreasing.

On the other hand, a more adaptive, 'inside the box' leader would strive upon receiving new data to make an existing policy more efficient rather than introduce a new one – perhaps a more suitable approach to resolving these two recent global crises. 

Learn to listen

The US president must start listening to his more adaptive advisors as he continues to address the complexities facing his country. Teams are stronger and more effective when there’s a mix of more adaptive and more innovative people, as together they bring different benefits and balance to the group. 

Even the most successful ‘ground-breaking, outside-of-the-box’ solutions need adaptive input for successful implementation and adoption, and by the two styles working together, teams can get the best and most accepted solutions. 

Everyone within a team, especially the leader, must listen to and respect each other’s different ways of problem solving. Interestingly, Trump does the opposite by highlighting the difficulties that can occur from people’s conflicting styles, and then attempts to solve the common problem himself rather than rallying his team behind him. 

We’ve seen this over Trump’s slander of Dr Fauci, advisor to presidents on infectious diseases since Reagan. While there is an obvious gap in knowledge of infectious disease between Fauci and Trump, there also appears to be a gap in problem-solving style with the more adaptive Fauci.

But by involving and listening to his adaptive team members and generally those around him, Trump could bring greater strength to his party, his policies and to his people, and may even then have a chance of being re-elected this year. 

Curt Friedel is associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education, and Director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving, at Virginia Tech University

Image credit: Pool / Pool via Getty Images


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