"Don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions!", or "how to ensure you're not in the loop"

I remember when I first heard this from a manager I thought it was pretty cool. It gave me a direct call to action, and I would be able to swoop in and save the day with my excellent suggestions.

And of course, maybe 80% of the time, this is genuinely the course of action you want your team members to take. But what I learned once I started leading teams myself is that there is a solid 20% of the time, sometimes more, when you’re going through a complex transition and there needs to be a much more collaborative approach. And let’s face it, if someone is bringing you solutions 100% of the time, that person has probably well and truly outgrown that job.

The problem with this mantra is it assumes that your team a) have access to all the information they need, and b) it creates a culture where people compete for the solution rather than operate from a place of curiosity and innovation, both of which require collaboration. Oh, and c) if you insist on this approach, you to have be extraordinarily approachable and generous in your feedback when someone comes to you with a solution, even if it’s a poor one. Otherwise, you’ll be lucky to find out a problem exists at all, let alone have someone come to you with a solution! Finally (we must be at d)?) it also absolves you of your own accountability.

In reality, I suspect this message usually comes about to shut down vexatious complaining or whining rather than seeking to shut down conversations about genuine problems. And this is an important distinction. A complaint (in this context) is something that is value-laden and short on facts. ‘Barry’s team, as always, haven’t delivered, so I can’t complete my part of the project’ is a complaint. There is only blaming here and no accountability on behalf of the person complaining.

Whether it's to address that dynamic, or because you really do need the person to go away and think about it some more, a solution is to ask them to come back with a problem statement: “For the duration of the project, Barry’s team have only delivered X on time twice, which is significantly impacting on my team’s ability to deliver our widgets. Initially, this was because we weren’t ready to receive them, but for the past two months, we’ve been ready to go; we have A and B and C in place, but we can’t finalise the product without Barry’s team’s components. I have spoken to Barry about the position it puts us in and have provided whatever assistance we can, including D and E and F, but we haven’t had any further traction. Could we discuss how best to move forward?”

This is a very different statement. It allows you to understand the situation and the roadblocks a little better. It gives you data to have a genuine conversation with Barry or Barry’s manager. It ensures it’s not just a blame-shifting exercise because you understand the first person’s role, where they have not delivered and where they have not been supported in the process. It allows for the commencement of a curious conversation with the relevant people to understand what’s occurred and how it can be fixed.

As a leader, you are much better equipped in this second scenario; you’re armed with more knowledge, you know there’s a problem, you have a person proactively trying to solve it who is being accountable for their own part in it, and you have created space for them to ask for genuine assistance. Ultimately, when a team member comes to you with a problem before sending them away to come to you with a solution, it’s essential to consider the scope of the problem and whether that person has the knowledge, relationships and/or influence to resolve the issue themselves. If they don’t, it could be an opportunity to help them grow; they simply need your approval and perhaps some coaching. But it may also be a scenario where they are just not going to be able to do it on their own.

If it’s the latter, it may be better for someone else to take ownership of the problem or for people to collaborate across functions. Thank them for bringing it to your attention, if appropriate include them in the resolution and move towards resolving it.

Ultimately if a person is perpetually bringing you complaints rather than solutions, they are doing so because there is some reward in it for them. If they are not bringing anything to you, you're missing out on understanding your team's level of risk and being able to proactively manage it. So think about how your own response might be perpetuating their behaviour, doing so will ensure you’re asking both your employees and you, yourself to be accountable for getting the best outcome.