how to teach people to bring solutions, not problems

Every manager wants a team that suggests solutions rather than just raising problems; employees who bring solutions play a crucial problem-solving role, take more ownership in the success or your team, and free you up to stay focused elsewhere. But if your team isn’t in the habit of proposing solutions when they identify problems, how do you build that habit in your team?

The biggest key is in your own behavior. When people bring a problem to you, are you enlisting them in solving it, or are you making the problem your own to solve?

First, turn the question back to them. Unless the problem is totally outside of their purview (in which case you will only frustrate them by asking them to propose a solution), ask what solution they think makes sense. For example:

  • “What do you think we should do about that?”
  • “What options do you see for responding?”
  • “What solutions do you think we should consider?”
  • “What would you do if I weren’t here?”

Sometimes people don’t even know that they have the standing to suggest solutions, so make it clear that you want to hear their thoughts.

If it’s not urgent, you can also suggest that they take some time and then come back to you with their thoughts. For example:

  • “That is a problem! Why don’t you get on my calendar for tomorrow, spend some time thinking about it between now and then, and bring some potential solutions to the meeting?”
  • “At our next one-on-one, let’s talk about what options you think make sense.”

It’s also important not to jump in and take over when you see a project not going as planned. Instead, you want to coach your staff to come up with and implement solutions. For example, if you see a marketing pitching isn’t working well, don’t rewrite it yourself. Instead, talk about the elements that need to be changed, and then ask your staff member to do the rewrite. Otherwise, you risk training people to just turn to you when bumps arise – and then you will forever be the main problem-solver, which you don’t want.

Of course, in doing this, you need to be careful not to create a dynamic where no one will ever raise problems if they don’t have a solution to propose. To avoid that, make sure that you thank people for pointing out problems, encourage questions, make it safe for people to make errors, invest some coaching in building people’s problem-solving capabilities, and don’t expect anyone to have all the answers every time (and especially not right off the bat).

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. F.*

    Whatever you do, don’t “shoot the messenger”! I’d much rather hear about a problem early in the game than find out about it after it has been allowed to fester and multiply, even if the person bringing me the problem does not have any possible solutions. Conversely, I try very hard to think of possible solutions to any problem I bring to our management. They may not always turn out to be workable solutions, but there is at least a starting point, and it shows that I have given some thought to the problem and my role in creating it and/or solving it.

    Many of the problems employees bring to me (the HR manager) are actually things they could solve themselves if they thought about it. When that is the case, the first thing I ask them is, “What do you hope to accomplish here?” followed by “How do you plan to do that?” They usually end up solving their own problem. (Worked well with my children, too!)

    1. Anon Accountant*

      Yes! “Don’t shoot the messenger”. Please managers don’t get upset when staff brings up problems to you even with solutions.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    “and then you will forever be the main problem-solver, which you don’t want.”

    UGH, so true! I dug that hole for myself two jobs ago and it was so tough to get out of. Not only was it a detriment to myself, but to others in the company; they didn’t push themselves to learn more, because they knew I would be there to give them the answer. And when I wasn’t, and something big came up, they didn’t know what to do and things fell apart. Big lesson learned there!

    1. Billy Mumphrey*

      I like the Jean Luc Picard approach: Geordi, Data, Weasley, give me your solutions. “OK Data, make it so.”. Sadly, Word’s solutions were always ignored.

  3. Chocolate lover*

    I’d also add not talking down to people when they do propose solutions, and immediately shooting people’s ideas down with no explanation. Constructive criticism is great, but I’ve seen several situations where people didn’t want to propose ideas because they thought they’d be ripped apart in a non-constructive way and didn’t want to put themselves through that. The feeling was “Why bother suggesting an idea when you won’t listen to me anyway?” People didn’t feel like their ideas would be respected.

    1. Nethwen*

      Yep. Been there. Quickly learned that “I hired smart people trained to do this job” was code for “fall down and worship me because my answers come from a superior intellect and any other suggestion comes from a person of lesser intelligence and is therefore wrong.”

    2. Alex*

      This is how I feel at my work place. I have a new manager (started 6 months ago). In the beginning, I would explain the problem and then offer a solution, which almost always he immediately shot down or completely ignored. After several months of feeling frustrated by this, I have started either 1) not consulting him during problems, and choosing the solution I think will be best for the situation (asking forgiveness rather than permission), or 2) presenting the problem without any suggestions and doing exactly what he tells me, even if I disagree.

      1. Beezus*

        Ohhh, I had one of those. The cherry on top of that sundae was, when the problem didn’t get solved, upper management would ask why we didn’t try the solution I suggested, and she would throw me under the bus. I defended myself the couple of times it happened right in front of me, but I knew it happened behind closed doors routinely.

    3. NJ Anon*

      Been there. We stopped bringing up problems or offering solutions. When shit hit the fan “oh well.” Needless to say morale sucked and I don’t work there any more.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yeah, we have that going on here as well. If upper management has no interest in listening to anyone else’s ideas and don’t consider it to be a problem, why bother saying anything?

    4. F.*

      A corollary to this is stealing other people’s solutions and passing them off as your own to earn point with management. At Very Dysfunctional Large Financial Services company where I used to be employed, they had a contest to solicit suggestions to cut costs. There were monetary prizes involved in order to stimulate participation. I suggested a number of feasible ideas, as did some of my colleagues. Imagine our surprise when the winners were announced! Some of our ideas were used, but were attributed to managers (who, of course, won the cash prizes). They did decide to cut expenses by eliminating my position, though. Great way to shut down input from the masses.

    5. Not an IT Guy*

      This. I had a former manager who would rip me apart and find a reason to reject every single one of my ideas. So I more or less became a yes-man to avoid this. He saw this as a sign of unhappiness on my part and removed me from my position.

  4. Stranger than fiction*

    Well the good news is that here we are asked for input on solutions, but the bad news is then poof they vanish into a black hole somewhere.

  5. AMG*

    It’s important to not only have a solution, but also have solid logic in HOW you came to that conclusion. My boss is great about going into the reasoning behind the solution, not just the end result.

  6. dear liza dear liza*

    Still working on this one. I was so proud of myself recently for asking one of my people, “What do *you* think we should do?”- and then as he gave his very convoluted, completely unworkable answer, I was reminded why that’s not always the best approach with this colleague. He’s very rules-oriented and any problem is seen as an opportunity to “write a policy.” He’s also very fond of starting solutions with “Someone should…” but when pressed a bit, will get mad if you think he has time to be that someone, or if it’s suggested that no one has the authority/time/responsibility to do x. He has many other wonderful characteristics, so I need to figure out a better way to coach him to problem solve. Ideas welcome.

    1. fposte*

      Can you change it up so it’s not just asking what you think “we” should do? “I’m definitely interested in hearing what you’d like to do to solve that, Bob. What are you proposing to do?” If he gets mad at that, that’s not a great thing, and it’s worth giving feedback on that. “Bob, it’s really important that we be able to work together when you raise issues. If it’s important enough for you to bring it to me, I’m assuming it’s important enough that you’re willing to help solve it. Can you work with that?”

      1. dear liza dear liza*

        Thanks so much for replying! Usually the problem is an oddity that just needs the employee to think on their feet. A vagued-up-for-the-Internet example: our primary role is to interface with clients. Sometimes, we’ll meet with a client group and it turns out that the client group really hasn’t given much thought in advance to our meeting, and then the meeting usually doesn’t go so well.

        Bob: “I met with the Lannister clients and they had no idea what teapots they wanted! I don’t think all of them even know what kind of tea they like to drink! This shouldn’t happen!”

        Me: “Wow, I’m sorry. That’s really frustrating. What do you think we could do to prevent this in the future?”

        Bob: “When clients make appointments, someone should make sure they really know what they want before the meeting. That should be the policy.”

        Me, thinking to myself, so you want the secretary to quiz the clients ‘Do you pinkie promise that by the time you come in for your meeting in 2 months, you’ll have your teapot patterns all selected?’

        I’ve tried gently pointing out that in our field, we can’t control our clients; I’ve tried sharing what I do when I find myself in such meetings; and I’ve tried going big picture (95% of our clients come in prepared, we can’t let the 5% drive us crazy). But typing this out, I’m wondering if I need to focus less on solutions and more on just hearing Bob out and giving him venting space? Although when I do that, he then demands a solution…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In this case, it sounds like you’re saying there isn’t really a solution — so it’s not so much that you want him to come up with one as that you want him to recognize that there isn’t one? If that the case, your response might just be “Yes, this is a frustrating thing about this work! I do XYZ to handle it, but nothing will eliminate it completely.”

          1. dear liza dear liza*

            This prompted me to think about this issue a little more, and now I’m starting to see it as a problem with coping rather than problem solving. Bob is easily thrown- and is especially prone to anxiety when we’re going through a busy phase at work. His work is strong, but then he’ll melt down because after the holiday party someone left their dishes in the sink and “that can’t happen.” Hmm…

        2. Not So NewReader*

          “Well, Bob, it does happen, even though you are right it should not happen. But that is part to the job. It’s something everyone here has to work through. Why not make a rough list of suggestions you think they might be interested in?”

          I think that some “solutions” involve changing one’s expectations. Sometimes people have expectations of a job that just do not exist. For example a person who works on a computer all day long, and expects the power/lights will never, ever go out. That is simply not a realistic expectation. Power failures are part of the job, they happen once in a while and must be dealt with accordingly.

          I don’t let people vent too much, it’s too draining and too non-productive. If Bob does this venting on a regular basis, I would start asking Bob big picture questions. “Bob, I noticed that you have been in here every day this week with something that is bothering you. I was wondering why, is there an underlying issue you would like to discuss?”

          I would also take a good look at his complaints to see what common threads I can find. Banking off of your example here, Bob’s complaint is that people are unprepared. Well, this happens and it’s almost unavoidable. You will encounter unprepared people as you go about your workday. If Bob’s complaints boil down to something that is just a part of work life, I would try to coach him about work life. If he proved to be not coachable, I would start to wonder if the job was a good fit for him.

          I see the part about rules and there ought to be a policy. Start saying things like, “Bob, we can’t write a policy for every single thing that comes up. I understand it’s frustrating but writing policies is not always a solution.” You might go into a big picture discussion about the nature of your work, “Bob, our work requires some flexibility in terms that we do x, y and z to accommodate a customer/coworker/cohort.” You might give examples of what would be considered an over-the-top expectation that would get NO as an answer. Then land on, “This is what we do here, we provide x, y and z as necessary.”
          You can also say, “Just because there is a rule or a policy does not mean people will follow it or even be aware of such rule or policy.”

    2. LQ*

      What kind of problems?
      If the problem is Jane isn’t doing her job and getting me the information I need to do my job then saying someone should talk to her is probably fine, it might not be his job at this point (based on if he’s already said, hey, I need the stuff).
      I guess the question here is, is the solution inside his …job description/duties/whatever. Identifying, for you and him, what is within his scope to fix. (It’s really loud at my desk. Can do: wear headphones, ask coworkers to be quiet when they get animated Can’t do: fire everyone who makes noise, only work nights)

  7. TheLazyB*

    Ah recently I’ve had feedback that ‘often when you email you tell me the right answer!’ from my line manager, because I try to do this, I’m still relatively new in post and I’m still not sure how much freedom I have (and for that matter what the right answer is!). It’s really frustrating, but probably not the worst problem in the world…

  8. Not So NewReader*

    This is a thing that people have to weigh in the surrounding context. Does it make sense to expect the subordinate to come up with a solution? Does the employee have the experience, background info, authority, ability and resources to 1) develop a solution and 2) implement that solution.

    Another good question for a boss to ask themselves is “how many times today/this week have I said this to this person?” If you have said it more than a handful of times you may not be giving out teaching moments, it has become something else to that subordinate. And that something is a big negative.

    I steered away from this type of teaching thing at the end of the day. It can tax people and try their patience. Friday afternoons and times right before a big deadline, were times I also avoided this technique for similar reasons. To balance this out, I liked to do autopsies as in “what can we do better with the next time?” And I also randomly encouraged people to develop ideas on how to make tasks less labor intensive.

    I have had bosses who wanted solutions and not problems. Because they did not understand how to use this tool, they ended up with neither problems nor solutions. Everyone just clammed up. It pays to hold the technique up to each situation and say, “Does it make sense to use this technique right now with this individual in front of me?”

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