“Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.”
It’s nearly a leadership cliché:
You’ve probably been on the receiving end of a harried manager barking these words at you. You may even have said them yourself.
I’ve delivered many keynote programs and workshops where frontline leaders in the audience approach me afterward and proudly announce how they are in the habit of telling their people not to bring a problem without a solution.
Some of them even mean well. They believe that they’re helping their people. Others just want people and their problems to go away. They’re usually surprised at my response:
Here’s the thing, if you’re in a leadership role, yes, your executives can fairly expect you to think things through and bring solutions (particularly when you’ve got bad news – see the D.A.R.N. Method). You’ve got the experience and responsibility to be able to own your problems and look for answers.
However, your employees are a different audience. Telling employees not to bring a problem without a solution is careless and lazy.
They may not know how to problem solve. They may lack critical thinking skills. They may not have the training or information they need to arrive at reasonable solutions.
The problem with telling people “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution” is that when they don’t know how to come up with solutions, you’ve essentially just told them, “Don’t bring me a problem.”
Now you’ve got people mucking about with problems they can’t solve and that they won’t bring to you. The problems fester, productivity and service decline, and everyone is frustrated.
There’s a better way.
Help Employees Learn to Think Critically and Solve Problems
The answer is definitely not to play the hero and jump in with answers, nor is it the old-school “Don't bring me a problem without a solution!” The immediate problems might get solved and work continues, but next time an issue comes up, your team still can’t figure it out for themselves and, worse, you’ve now taught them that if things get difficult, you’ll just figure it out for them.
Yes, you’re the hero, but say goodbye to your own productivity!
What they really need from you in these moments are your questions: the kind of questions that focus on learning and the future. Questions that generate ideas and solutions.
- What is your goal?
- What did you try?
- What happened?
- Do you need a specific skill or tool to be able to solve this?
- What would you do next time?
- What do you think will happen when you try that?
- What will you do?
- Super-bonus question – keep reading to learn this powerful tool!
Assuming that your staff have the basic skills, training, and materials they need to do their jobs, this conversation doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes. For a complex project, it might take the time required to drink a cup of coffee, but it shouldn’t take much longer than that.
Now, you might be wondering what to do if the person replies to one of your questions with, “I don’t know.”
Don’t despair – it’s time to use the super-bonus question. When a team member says, “I don’t know,” most managers will then jump in and supply the answer, but not you. There’s a better way.
“I don’t know” can mean many things. Rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.
More often, “I don’t know” translates to:
- “I’m uncertain.”
- “I don’t want to commit before I know where you stand.”
- “I haven’t thought about it yet.”
- “I don’t want to think about it.”
- “Will you please just tell me what to do?”
- “I’m scared about getting it wrong.”
Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue – to ease the person through their anxiety and train their brain to engage. This is where the super-bonus question comes in.
With one question you can re-engage them in the conversation and move through “I don’t know” to productivity.
When someone says, “I don’t know,” your super-bonus question is: “What might you do if you did know?”
Before you judge this tool, try it.
Try it with your children, with your co-workers, or with the person next to you in a coffee shop. In any conversation where someone says, “I don’t know,” respond with a gentle, “What might you do if you did know?” and watch what happens.
It’s like magic.
The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas (often good ones) brainstorm solutions, and move on as if they were never stuck. It’s amazing and hard to believe until you try it.
The super-bonus question works because it addresses the source of the person’s “I don’t know.” If they were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off by creating a hypothetical situation: “If you did know…” Now they don’t have to be certain or look for your approval and they become free to share whatever they might have been thinking.
If they hadn’t thought about the issue or didn’t want to think about it, you’ve lowered the perceived amount of thought-energy they must expend. You’re not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversational “What might you do…”
Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks. When you do this for your team, you train their brain to engage, to push through their ordinary blocks, and increase their performance. Ultimately, they will be able to have these conversations with themselves and will only need to bring the very serious issues to you.
You’ll know you’re succeeding in asking healthy questions when a team member tells you: “I had a problem. I was going to come and talk it over with you, but then I thought, you’re just going to ask me all these questions. So I asked myself all the questions instead and I figured it out.”
Celebrate those moments and encourage them to start asking those questions of the people around them. You’ve just increased your team’s capacity for problem-solving, freed up time to focus on your work, and…you’ve built a leader!
Before you bark “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution,” remember that when a team member has trouble thinking through a problem, good questions are your best solution.