Don’t Bring Me Problems


“Don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions!” he said pressing his index finger into the table in front of him. A wry smile crossed his lips as if he were the embodiment of the wisdom of Solomon. Uncharacteristically, I could not respond. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to say, it was that I could not believe he had said it. I had never heard a manager slam the door so firmly shut on communication with his team.

I didn’t realize that this managerial banality had been making the rounds on blogs for some time now. The justification for this is usually some lip service about empowering people. Like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool to teach them to swim. We tell our staff we believe in them, then toss them out our office door. If you scratch the surface of this argument, what you most often find is that this is the way some managers deal with whiners. You know, those energy sapping people who seem more adept at deflating moral than doing their job. There is a significant difference, however, between whining and bringing attention to issues. To whine is to simply complain, to avoid responsibility and blame others. Problem identification, on the other hand, is an objective recognition of a risk or issue.

Specifically telling your staff to NOT speak to you blinds you to what is happening. Your staff is being told that you only want to know about the problems they can solve. The big problems, the tough ones, go unresolved as well as unknown by you, the manager. Yet, there may be a host of issues out there that genuinely need your attention, issues that the team may not be able to resolve without your help. Issues of which you need to be made aware. Harvard Business Review has shown that performance lags when it is not safe to discuss problems[1].  Telling your team not to speak with you creates a hostile environment for problem identification.

Also, consider that when you are presented with solved problems you may not be presented with optimum solutions. The greater the complexity of the issue at hand, the greater the benefit of collaborating on its resolution. As managers, we have insights that individual team members may not. An individual team member may not understand all the parameters of a solution or may dismiss a viable solution. Your perspective can provide much needed insights.

Let me propose an alternate method. First, borrowing from agile, we start each day with a quick fifteen-minute meeting in which team members are able to raise concerns. The manager’s role here is to make sure the meeting stays on track and within the given time frame. Also, by guiding the conversation we minimize, and hopefully eliminate, whining. Second, maintain a RAID (Risks Assumptions Issues Dependencies) log holding regular meetings to review this log. During a RAID log review, team members are encouraged to identify entries into the log. As a team, they evaluate risk / issue probability and severity along with mitigation plans.

This solution truly empowers a team, giving them an opportunity to voice their concerns. There are few things more empowering than being encouraged to share your views. Second, it gives the team the opportunity to control their own destiny. They not only identify the problem, they are given the authority to collaborate on the solution. Most importantly, this gives you the manager a view into what is happening with your team. You not only are given insights into what is currently happening with your project, but what threats may be looming on the horizon.

So please, if you are on my team never hesitate to speak to me.

[1] Harvard Business School case study “Safe to Say at Prudential Financial,”# 9-603-093

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