This phrase has a good intention related to growing team empowerment and capability, but there are some potential negative side-effects. Let’s look at this from two perspectives: for the manager, what could you do instead, and for an employee, how could you have a more effective conversation with a manager who says this, even if you don’t have the solution.
In this episode, Richard and Peter answer the question: “I was in a 1:1 with my boss and I shared a problem I was observing on the team. She reminded me of her motto: ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ The challenge was that I didn’t have a solution. Should I wait to share the problem until I’ve come up with a solution?”
They also get into why managers shouldn’t say this, even if their intentions are good, and what to do instead.
Welcome to the Humanizing Work Mailbag where we answer questions from the humanizing work community.
If you’ve got a question for us, email us at email@example.com and we’ll see if we’ve got a good answer for you. We received this e-mail to the mailbag headquarters: It said, I was in a one on one with my boss and I shared a problem I was observing on the team. She reminded me of her motto –”Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” The challenge was that I didn’t have a solution. Should I wait to share the problem until I’ve come up with a solution?
This is one of those phrases that evokes “The Office” style management to me, and it immediately raises my hackles. But I have to slow down and think, “Okay, what’s the likely well-intentioned origin of this management catch phrase? Somebody came up with this for what felt like a good reason.” And I try to put myself in their shoes and come up with the best case I can imagine– I’ve been in this situation occasionally: the leader who has team members who don’t take the power that they have and who are just thinking of you as the problem solver.
So I think the best intentioned goal here is this: “I want my people to spend some time thinking about problems before we talk. I want them to use the power they have instead of just being a powerless victim to everything, and not see me as the person who always has to swoop in and save them.” And so there’s a well-intentioned thing about team empowerment and capability, and I appreciate that.
That’s not usually how it plays out, though.
Yeah, I think there are some negative side effects that come up when somebody hears this from their manager. And I like to think about the idea of a culture signal, which we’ve talked about quite a bit on the podcast and on the show: Our actions speak louder than our words. And people are always looking for signals for what’s expected around here.
And culture signals always have an intended thing that we’re communicating, like a benefit. This is what matters here, a positive side to it. Yet we often communicate the thing we’re willing to get worse at. And I think in this case, there is something that we don’t think of, that we might get worse at if we use this phrase a lot. There are some negative side effects; and those can look like people never sharing what they’re noticing, even if they’re important things for somebody to be aware of, “I don’t share it. I’m just going to wait to bring it up until I can figure out how to solve it.” It can send a signal that people don’t think the manager’s interested in being a collaborator, in solving problems– just having other people do it for them.
And sometimes I think we value performing competence over transparency and collaborative problem solving. So there are some potential side effects to this that can make it go wrong, despite, I think, the well-intentioned positive benefits we can get from it.
Yeah, and I think there are a couple of other longer term side effects. So it’s kind of the immediate thing that happens in the moment, and then there’s, I think, an effect of emphasizing and prioritizing certain kinds of problems and certain approaches to solving them. If you say this a lot, it teaches your team to focus on the things that can be solved individually via deep thinking, but the things that are too difficult or complex for that, don’t bring those up because you’re just going to get smacked down for it.
And long term you end up either not hearing about things until they blow up, or you get individuals or a team solving the same problem over and over again in isolation and miss an opportunity for system improvement. I’ve experienced this one before. I didn’t communicate this message directly, but I think some people on my team knew I was busy and wanted to protect my focus and help me out, and I found out later they’d been doing some inefficient manual process over and over again.
I finally saw it; and I don’t want this! “Let’s fix this system. You don’t need to do this thing for me.” So they were protecting me from having to see a problem, which I appreciate. But it meant that we let a broken system sit for a really long time. And that was an accidental expression of that in a culture. I certainly don’t want to create that unintentionally. I don’t want my actions to cause that as a leader.
Yeah. So let’s look at this idea of, “Well, so what should we do instead?” from two lenses, one from the manager lens, one from somebody being told this by their manager. So if you’re a manager and you’ve used this phrase or, like the original submitter said, that’s their motto. How might you get the positive benefits of encouraging people to take initiative and solve problems without experiencing some of those side effects?
For this, I would look back to the three jobs of management as a model. Those three jobs, again, are to create clarity, to increase capability and to improve the system; and then test whether any of those jobs might help the employee to work through the challenge more effectively. Like, how could I help create more clarity about the context of the problem they’re trying to solve, what matters, and what goals and expectations we should focus on as we try to solve it.
I think a big one here is around increasing capability and that could be at the team level or at this individual’s level. So it might mean switching to more of a coaching stance where you ask questions to help them think through the problem and any potential solutions. Maybe doing some mentoring; but either way, focused on developing that person’s problem-solving capabilities.
It might even include, especially if the problem is best solved by a group of people, not by one, maybe teaching them how to get the right people in the room and then to facilitate an effective conversation using something like the ORID* structure from The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace , or that third job; improving the system. What system improvements might be needed to solve the problem?
As Richard’s example pointed out, sometimes we’ll just solve the piece of it that we know how to solve rather than looking more systemically, either on the human side or the objective side. What do we need to do to get to a good solution here? We’ll drop a link in the episode page in the show notes to learn more about the three jobs in case this is the first time you’re hearing about that model.
Now let’s flip over to the other side. If you hear this phrase from your boss, what do you do? Well, I would say first choose to hear the best version of it. They want you to be empowered to make things happen; so great. From there, think about how you could ask for their help in those three categories: The Three Jobs of management.
What do you need more clarity about? What skills or capabilities could you use their help or mentorship on? What do they know about how the system works that may be helpful to you as you try to solve the problem? Or in what ways do they have the power to make system improvements where you don’t? Notice, even if you’re still effectively bringing a problem to your boss, this approach is going to feel different compared to just throwing a problem in front of them. You’re showing that you are already taking initiative to solve it and you’re bringing them into the act of solving it versus just, “Here’s a problem. What should we do?” Finally, remember our favorite technique when you can’t solve a problem, which is to make it more visible.
Don’t just assume that the people who can do something about it including your boss, and maybe other colleagues, can see what you see. Leverage a good visualization to make possible solutions more clear to you and to others who might be able to do something about it. If you can’t fix it, make it visible.
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*ORID: Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, Decision-focused