“Don’t come to me with a problem; come with a solution” – why should you stop saying that?

Feb 15, 2023
Feb 15, 2023 Norbert Marek

As a manager, you collect a list of problems to solve every day. Employees come to you and ask what to do,  yet you hired them precisely so you could delegate these problems to them. So what do you do? You say: “Don’t come to me with a problem, but with a solution.” Simple, right?

But let’s think about it for a moment. What message does this implicitly convey to the employee? What does it draw attention to? It says “Don’t bother me”, “Deal with it alone”, “My time is too valuable for me to deal with your problems”, “Why haven’t you done it yet? After all, it’s easy”, “Why are you taking my precious time?” This type of approach will lead to a situation where the employee doesn’t see the manager’s commitment, and as a result, the employee may withdraw, shut down, and perhaps even leave the company. Neither the team nor the manager find this helpful. It causes you to have even more tasks instead of fewer.

I get your fear

Where does this attitude come from? Usually from a manager’s fears about:

(A) the shifting of responsibility from employees to them, and the extra workload that may result

Managers may assume that they are responsible for the results of employees’ work once they get involved in solving their problems, and instead of dealing with their responsibilities, they’ll deal with the tasks of team members who’ve been specifically hired to accomplish them. Furthermore, they are afraid that once they accept a task, it will keep happening and more tasks will follow. As a result, not only will they be unable to complete their tasks, but they may not be able to complete those of their team members.  

The pile of potential tasks can be frightening and even lead to inaction. In turn, shifting responsibility will lead to a decrease in trust between the manager and individual members of their team, further leading to reduced efficiency and perhaps even the departure of some team members.

(B) the decreasing independence of their team members

Another common concern is that if the manager decides to solve a problem for their employee, the employee will become less responsible and proactive, they will no longer identify with the tasks that follow, and their level of commitment and effectiveness will decrease. And yet we want our team members to be engaged, proactive, and responsible.

Often this concern stems from past experiences when someone shifted tasks and responsibilities onto the manager, or a misunderstanding of who is responsible for what. Just because such situations occurred in the past doesn’t mean that this will be the case in the future. Moreover, an employee may be faced with a situation where they are performing a new task for themselves and need assistance, since they don’t yet have experience dealing with this type of problem.

So what to do instead?

Let’s be honest with ourselves, concerns from points (A) and (B) may exist in extreme cases, but let’s see what can happen when the manager and employee lean into the problem and try to solve it. Clear, supportive but assertive communication can definitely help in reducing both managers’ and employees’ anxiety. 

What should the manager communicate to the employee in such a situation?

  • While I will help you, my goal is to make you more independent thanks to this help.
  • We’re both responsible for the outcome, and will work out a solution together.
  • What resources do you need to solve similar problems in the future?
  • I really want you to feel independent enough to solve the problem yourself next time. So now ask anything, but in the future, I don’t want to deal with it anymore. 

If the manager communicates this properly then:

  • An employee can see that their manager cares about them, which increases trust between them.
  • The employee’s competence may increase by working together with the manager, if the solution lies outside their own competence.
  • Later on, the manager won’t have to be involved in similar situations, reducing their workload in the long run.
  • The risk of mutual frustration will be small, and the team member and/or manager won’t leave.

When an employee asks for too much

It’s crucial to distinguish between a situation when an employee realistically needs support, and a case when we should ask them to take more ownership. There are a few guiding questions that will help you reliably answer this question:

  • Is the employee performing this task for the first time? 
  • Does the employee have all the resources and skills needed to perform this task?
  • What kind of support at this seniority level will be best for the employee?

If the employee has come to you with this or a similar problem before, you may be dealing with an attempt to shift responsibility. It’s important here to ask what they need to address the problem fully, what happened during the previous situation, and what support they need. Keep in mind that experienced employees may not be able to contextualize solutions, and will need more examples and situations to know for the future what to do.

If this is the first such situation, then perhaps the employee doesn’t have the necessary resources, competencies, or skills. In this case, it’s worthwhile going through the problem together with them and making sure they have the necessary resources to deal with it in the future.

  • Has the employee tried the solutions available to them on their end?

If the employee gives up and hasn’t exhausted the solutions available to them, then other options should be pointed out and encouraged.

To sum up: “Don’t come to me with a problem, come with a solution” isn’t always the best approach. Employees can feel unsupported, withdraw, and even quit. So, the next time someone asks you for help, think about what kind of support is best for them at this level of seniority.

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