It’s time to retire the saying “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” says business coach and writer Sabina Nawaz in an article for the Harvard Business Review. Even though advocates of this approach believe it reduces whining, increases empowerment, helps employees manage up, and boosts careers, it’s fraught with challenges.
Not every problem has an easy solution. Tackling the complexity of most significant business issues can take a pool of talented people with diverse points of view. What’s more, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant, solution-only thinking creates “a culture of advocacy instead of one of inquiry,” where each person comes into the situation locked into their way of solving the problem and lobbies hard for that particular solution rather than considering multiple perspectives.
The “bring me a solution” approach can also cause employees to shut down in fear, breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises. A key reason many managers continue using the approach is because they want to avoid a culture of complaining. But communicating about the potential pitfalls and roadblocks for an initiative is different from complaining, and it can take a more positive form. When issues are communicated properly, it creates an environment where people feel safe to bring you bad news early, giving you precious lead time to avert a crisis.
Here’s how you can encourage your team to bring up problems in a more productive way:
Make it safe. Modify your behavior so that people aren’t afraid to bring you bad news.
Require problem statements instead of complaints. Although you should want people to alert you to potential issues, they need to learn how to distinguish between raising a valid concern and simply complaining. Complaints are stated in absolutes, such as always and never, rather than in concrete facts. They lack accountability and often have villains (them) and heroes (us). And they often don’t look beyond the surface of the issue.
Problem statements, on the other hand, provide objective facts, examine underlying factors and causes, and reveal everyone’s role in creating the problem, even the person presenting it. This allows everyone to dig in deeper and identify the root cause of the issue.
Find the right person or people to solve the issue. When an employee brings you a problem, consider its scope and that person’s ability to solve it. If they can single-handedly tackle the challenge, maybe they just need your approval before proceeding. Or they may need you to coach them on how to think about the situation and broaden the field of potential solutions.
If the size of the problem is beyond their ability to solve, someone else might be better suited for the challenge, or people across departments may need to collaborate. In some cases, the problem might be so important or visible that you need to stay involved. Based on the situation, you can coach the individual to stretch their abilities and tackle the challenge; thank them for raising the issue and assign it to the appropriate people to resolve; or bring together several groups to address it.