It was as inevitable as the sounds of Retreat playing across the scattered installation every night. Even as most of the office tended to shuffle out as the sun grew low in the evening sky, a solitary shadow would fall over my office door as one of my subordinates waited patiently for me to look up. The statement never changed: “I have a problem.”
My response was always the same: “Talk to me, Goose.”
So, each night, when shadow graced the doorway, I would be prepared for the discussion. I might be running late for a meeting, or possibly hoping to get out early for dinner, but I always made time when someone had a problem. Sometimes, the solutions came easy. Sometimes, the answers took a while longer to find. But we never walked out without a solution in place.
I got 99 problems. Let’s talk options.
Sending the Wrong Message
A common refrain to hear in leadership philosophies is, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” While well intentioned, it might not convey the message we really want. We might be aiming for an independent team of creative thinkers, but what we’re fostering is a culture of siloed thinking that discourages people from speaking up when they have serious problems.
This culture has been parodied by everyone from Dilbert creator Scott Adams to Mike Judge, whose film Office Space addressed just about every workplace dysfunction imaginable. The boss sits back, confident in their brilliant approach to challenging subordinates to find unique solutions on their own, only to find that people are avoiding them like a bad case of monkeypox. Words matter. When you tell your team “Don’t bring me problems!” they won’t. Even if you think otherwise.
Ultimately, that message leads to a cascade of other problems. First, it leaves you in the dark when real problems exist. When you do learn about those problems, it’s usually late in the game, and your reaction time is significantly reduced. You’re going to start from crisis mode and work from there. Second, people will inevitably waste a lot of time trying to solve problems on their own when you could have helped. Inexperience makes simple problems seem impossible. You exist to coach, teach, and mentor, so do it. Third, small problems that were easily solved early on often morph into big problems later. Better to solve those small problems quickly while you can. And finally, morale will be a hot dumpster fire because no one – and I mean NO ONE – will want to bring you problems.
Sending the Right Message
As long as I can remember, one of my core tenets as a leader was, “If you bring me a problem, come with a solution.” For me, sending the right message was always important. I was never too worried about people bringing me their problems. That kind of went hand-in-hand with leading. Spend enough time sitting in the captain’s seat, and you’re going to see a lot of problems. Problems are a given. Bring ‘em – that’s why I’m here.
What I needed were options. Getting there was as simple as changing the message. Instead of warning people with problems away, just remind them that if they have a problem to discuss, the solution needs to be a discussion, not a directive. Give them the space to think through those issues with you, allow them the freedom to innovate a little, and help them to understand how to solve their own problems.
By opening the door for people to discuss problems – and options – you create an environment where people feel safe to raise their concerns, while at the same time encouraging the creative thinking that you want on your team. Once people are comfortable raising those concerns, you can have serious, productive conversations that explore options. Mistakes are no longer hidden among the cubicles, people don’t get weighed down with setbacks, and morale increases.
If you’re serious about building your team, then you have to invest in their development. In the end, working to find collaborative solutions helps to build a growth mindset, and that’s what you want among your team members. That growth mindset is a crucible for forging talent, and the more you cultivate that mindset the more that talent comes to the surface. You’re not just building your team; you’re building a bench of future leaders. And it all starts with sending the right message.
Or you can just shoo them away at the door. Let me know how that works for you.