Learning & Development

Leadership: 'Bring Me Solutions, Not Problems' Is the Wrong Message

Topic:  Training Strategy
Traditional management wisdom would say that it’s good to tell employees: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” but some experts and educators are suggesting that this approach, rather than being empowering employees, does the opposite. It may actually cause employees to shut down and refrain from bringing issues to their managers’ attention.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Sabina Nawaz says that managers have a tendency to take this approach because they want to avoid creating a “culture of complaining.” But, she says: “communicating about the potential pitfalls and roadblocks for an initiative is different from complaining, and it can take a more positive form.”
Nawaz suggests that managers take these steps to ensure that employees feel free to bring up issues in a productive way:

  • Make it safe. Nawaz reflects on her experience at Microsoft where reviews with Bill Gates focused on revealing problems. His philosophy was that a CEO’s most important job was to “listen for bad news so that he could act on it.”
  • Require problem statements instead of complaints. Often, the framing of our comments can result in them being perceived either positively or negatively. Problem statements, says Nawaz, avoid the “always and never” of complaints. They focus, instead, on facts, underlying factors and causes—and “reveal everyone’s role in creating the problem.”
  • Find the right person or people to solve the issue. The employee raising an issue is often not the right person to address the issue. The manager’s role is to understand the issue, its scope, and how it can best be addressed. Nawaz points to Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, who said that “Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is.”

It’s understandable that supervisors and managers may become weary of being the brunt of what they perceive as complaints from their staff members. Attempting to get those staff members to find solutions, rather than point to problems, may seem like a constructive approach. But, as Nawaz points out, this approach may actually lead to more problems—and has the potential to keep real issues underground.
Talent and development professionals can help managers move toward taking a different approach to receiving and responding to what may, initially, be perceived as a complaint, by coaching them to take a more problem statement-based approach to these conversations.