Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Don’t Come To Me With Problems is a Terrible Strategy

Joe is a good boss™. One day, as he’s sitting in his office reviewing his spreadsheets and making important decisions to help his teams, his employee comes in complaining about something. Being a certified good boss™, he quickly interrupts and says “I appreciate your perspective and I want to help. Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.” The employee thinks for a minute, sees the wisdom in that statement, and goes on her way.

It sounds right, doesn’t it? The boss has been understanding and at the same time places an onus of ownership on the employee. The employee needs to be responsible for thinking it through, refining her observations and coming back with something actionable. It’s back-pressure that makes the system better.

The Golden Moment of Opportunity

Jane is a good employee™ (also good mom™, good wife™, good friend™ and good PTA™ member). This morning she was up at 5am comforting her son who was throwing up. She couldn’t get back to sleep, so she worked on her meal plans for next week, reconciled the transactions in her budgeting software and spent some time making progress on the Brené Brown book she’s been working through. She really wants to live more authentically.

She helped her other two kids get ready for school and asked her husband to take a work from home day to watch their son since she had important meetings, dropped her kids at school and battled traffic to get to the office.

The important meetings didn’t go well. There were some clear patterns that that were preventing progress. She’d been noticing it for a while and her frustration had reached a tipping point. “I just have to do something about this,” she said to herself. Buckling up her big-girl pants, she headed to Joe’s office.

A simmering problem had encountered a stout and courageous heart. The Golden Moment had arrived!

… As she left Joe’s office, she couldn’t help but agree with the wisdom of what he said. She needed to come up with a plan, not just walk in there and share the frustration! “How can we solve this problem?” she started to think to herself as she walked back to her desk.

“Sorry Jane, we really need that report today, do you think you can get it to us?” someone said as she was sitting down at her desk. “Oh right. Yes. On it!” She smiled. “I’ve got this too.”

When she arrived home her husband hadn’t taken out the roast from the freezer. She had to come up with a new plan.

Three weeks later she was in another meeting. It still wasn’t going well. “Oh right, I was supposed to come up with a plan to solve this,” she thought to herself and sighed.

Wrong, Not All Wrong

The idea itself of pushing back on people to think through the issues before raising them is not entirely wrong. There are elements that make the idea compelling.

There has to be back pressure in the system to make it run effectively. It relieves their local pressure and introduces a mechanism for refining the inputs.

It emphasizes the value of personal ownership and initiative which is a good thing to have.

It is simple, pithy and memorable. It is easy to deploy. People generally accept it as wisdom.

There Are Biases In the System

A general rule that gets applied for every situation will introduce biases into the system, helping some of the population and hindering others to greater and lesser degrees. The question then becomes which part of the population will it help and which will it hinder?

There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.

— Thomas Jefferson (paraphrasing Aristotle)

The first population that it will help is loud, pushy and narcissistic people. These folks will be excellent and articulating their perspective. Whenever I have walked out of a room with a narcissist, I often wonder what happened. How did they manage to put my brain on hold and make me think their idea was my idea? Perhaps it was just because they kept talking with energy and emotion so my friendly, empathetic brain was hijacked. This rule will make us prey to narcissists in the worst case but bias towards extroverted talkers generally.

Folks who are task oriented and follow through will benefit from this policy and are more likely to struggle with with creative, outside the box thinking. Expect to get more cookie cutter solutions to problems that will produce the same strategies and problems that our competition has.

People who don’t have a life outside of work will benefit from this policy. Engaging with their children and community will become a tradeoff that they have to consider if they want to engage with solving problems in their work life.

Low income people are unlikely to be able to engage with this policy. They are not only busy, they are deparate, stressed and worried. Even if they carve out time to articulate and problem research a solution, it will be difficult to do it well.

It will not work well when there is a lot of stress in the workplace or the home life of our team. Stress creates tunnel vision.

Women are more likely to notice social issues and also the less likely to have the time and space to research and think about solutions.

People with neuro-diversity who see and interpret the world in different ways are an amazing source of ideas and observations and they will be excluded along with all people with lower executive functioning.

People who have more social anxiety or who have less opportunity to practice the arts of persuasion will have a harder time to get their observations and ideas through.

The policy will bias the information and people who engage to the population with the most privilege and who are most aligned with the norm. These are the people with fewer innovative ideas, lower social sensitivity and who require the least help from as as a leader.

It has the wrong idea about knowledge

There is an assumption that one can go away and think about something then have a good solution for it. Most problems worth solving are not that kind of problem. This is particularly true in todays complex work environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. (VUCA)

It is rarely possible to come up with a good solution without trying some things and failing, or without gathering a broad range of ideas from different perspectives and filtering them down to the best ideas. If we require our people to have a solution before coming to us then we are limiting their ability to experiment. Do we want them to gather colleagues to ideate then come to us with the result? It seems likely disrupt everyone, and the problem they perceive might not even be important enough to mobilize the troops on. Again, our introverted thinkers are probably not going to rally people, but our extroverted pushers just might do that and cause more chaos and interruptions.

We are limiting our people’s growth if we prevent them from trying solutions to problems. We need to make more opportunities inside our teams to let people try things and learn. If we don’t then we will need to keep hiring outside talent to solve our problems. These will be people who were given the opportunity to cut their teeth somewhere else. This will dilute our local culture and make it harder for people to move up. We unintentionally create an environment where our problem solvers have to leave our organization in order to gain opportunities to experiment and learn.

If You Believe This Phrase You have Bigger Problems

There is a more fundamental problem. The policy has the word ‘me’ right at the centre of it.

We are likely deploying this policy because we are already on the wrong battlefield. If we as leaders are the central decision makers we have set ourselves and our team up for limitations and bottlenecks.

The policy is aiming to solve a problem inherent in a poorly designed system. The policy is about for shedding load from a constrained resource — ourselves. Where do the problems go when they get filtered out? Problems in a system are things that must be solved and solved quickly. They are piling up somewhere.

Perhaps the first question we should have for any staff member that comes to us with a problem is “what is preventing you from solving this yourself? How have I failed to set you up with the authority?” In fairness, it is impossible to design the perfect system. Our teams will inevitably run into problems that they do not have the perspective or authority to solve on their own. They will have to come to us for those.

If we have set them up to solve most things on their own we will never need this policy. Every problem that our staff comes to us with will already be something we must attend to.

If we need to create a filter, then we have designed the system wrong. When we improve the design of our system our people will solve most problems on their own without us hearing about it. We will get the privilege of hearing the problems that our people cannot solve and those will be beneficial pieces of information that we can use to improve the system.

Make it Easy for Them

When we require people to frame their messages just right in order to be heard, we are placing the burden on them to communicate effectively. This is a leadership failure.

When strong relationships are in place, it does not matter how good the communication is. The message gets through. The onus is on us as a leader to be a good listener and forge strong, trusting relationships with our team.

How can we make a low barrier for entry for discovering and communicating problems and then use that as a way to refine things? Perhaps the right version of this is “Yes, come to me with problems. I will give you my full attention. Give me your golden moments and I will treasure them.”

Noticing + Courage = Golden Moments

The most valuable gifts for us as leaders is when someone has both the ability to notice problems, and the courage to speak up. The challenge in receiving this gift comes when we are overwhelmed.

It is easy to become overwhelmed. Some people are just complainers and given the opportunity will overwhelm us. If we’re pushing to grow and do more, we overwhelm ourselves. Technology has both helped us get where we are and is also bombarding us with more information that overwhelms us.

We need some way to filter the information and problems and then the ones that make it through need to be prioritized and executed upon in the right order. On the surface, it seems like “don’t come to me with problems” is a good strategy for encouraging ownership, critical thinking and filtering the important problems. Except it is not.

But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Matthew 24:3–4

What is a good strategy? Lets start by refusing to put on the one rule to rule them all. Let’s become good systems designers or partner with people who are good system designers. (I suspect these people are not going to look like the typical manager type.)

Some people are good at observing problems, others are good at solving them, others are good at filtering which ones are more important. As leaders, how can we organize people as a team to identify, triage and solve problems in ways that work for them?

If we can do that then the problems that get through to us will already be the important ones. We get to solve them. We get to treasure the people who come forward. We can decide how to better organize and train our team so that they can solve them next time. The system will keep learning and growing and we can better enjoy being in leadership.




Crafting software and teams for 20 years. Everything I write is wrong but if I keep writing I will be less and less wrong.

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Chris Dwan

Chris Dwan

Crafting software and teams for 20 years. Everything I write is wrong but if I keep writing I will be less and less wrong.

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