Why “bring me solutions, not problems” is a terrible corporate phrase

Feb 23, 2023

3 mins

Why “bring me solutions, not problems” is a terrible corporate phrase
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Our expert in The Lab, Laetitia Vitaud has a thing for analyzing the new and old in corporate jargon. This time around, she takes a swing at a classic in the executive dictionary: “bring me solutions, not problems,” and tells us why it’s a sinister injunction.

As someone who’s confronted constantly with all sorts of problems (who isn’t?) I can understand why managers don’t want to spend their days listening to the concerns and complaints of employees who offer no suggestion for improvement. It’s tiring. In fact, I often find myself wanting to say, “bring me solutions, not problems” to my children and spouse, simply because I’m tired of feeling responsible for everyone’s troubles. But I’ve never said those words. Why? Because they’re toxic and no one should have to hear them — at work or at home.

First, it should be said that the people who identify problems aren’t always in the best position to solve them; problems are best solved together. Second, a work culture that discourages us from speaking up is bound to bring disaster. After all, it’s understandable that people who fear being reprimanded will prefer silence to voicing concerns. Indeed, it’s an age-old issue, and Sophocles had it figured out two-and-a-half millennia ago: “None loves the messenger who brings bad news.” That sentiment is particularly pronounced in environments that lack trust and employees don’t feel psychologically secure.

Stronger together

As author and psychologist Adam Grant notes in a recent article in Harvard Business Review, focusing solely on solutions creates “a culture of advocacy instead of one of inquiry” in which nuance and collaboration are sacrificed. The fact is that many problems don’t have a simple, immediate, or obvious solution. That’s why curious inquiry and diverse perspectives should be considered paramount.

According to University of Miami professor Scott Page, diversity may be the secret to solving complex problems. During a lecture at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Page noted that “Diverse groups consistently outperform teams of like-minded experts.” There’s a tendency to want to bring together the finest experts in a discipline to solve a problem that seems related to that discipline, but in doing so, we miss out on the “bonus” of diversity. Page said, “When I go to the New York Fed, they’ll have 60 people with PhDs in economics and no sociologists and no psychologists. They’re all trained to see the world in the same way, through the exact same models.” Yet the strength of the solution also depends on the cognitive diversity of the individuals we bring together–we go further with people who think differently.

I only heard the expression “bring me solutions, not problems” once at work, but it felt like a cold shower. No one enjoys a slap on the wrist, and it should come as no surprise that, rather than saying the boss’s idea presents a number of challenges, many will pretend it’s brilliant instead. It’s the inevitable product of a culture of intimidation.

A simple metaphor: Let’s say you’re the first to detect a small leak in a pipe. You see exactly where it is, but as you’re not a plumber and don’t know how to fix it on your own, you keep quiet. Eventually, the tiny leak leads to major water damage and costly repairs. Needless to say, the resulting isolation saps employee motivation, and it also undermines an organization’s ability to improve. When an employee quits (which often happens in these situations) the manager won’t know why. Even if an exit interview is conducted, meaningful information will be left out.

Creating a culture of trust

It’s likely that managers who say, “bring me solutions, not problems” dodge complaints and criticism to avoid time-consuming conflicts and tiresome tension. But discussing inefficiencies and difficulties doesn’t automatically translate to grumbling, but can be constructive and even strengthen bonds. But that — more optimal — outcome requires a trusting foundation.

However, this shouldn’t keep managers from setting certain rules to prevent the problem from escalating. That could, for example, be to ban the words “never” and “always” (which, by the way, might also be a good idea in domestic discussions). In addition, as the goal is to promote collective learning and prevent issues from intensifying, the problem should be presented with as much factual information as possible. Consider that, when we make an emergency call, we present the problem as directly as possible to facilitate the work of paramedics or firefighters. We provide crucial information only, such as name, address, situation, and degree of urgency – no unnecessary details or complaints. So why not train employees to present their problems more effectively?

Once the basic facts and causes of a problem have been identified, we can also identify the right people to solve it. Resolving a dispute together will at once put a manager at ease and increase the employees’ sense of security. Rather than a “conflict,” this process can be a learning process for the whole team and, perhaps most importantly, employees will be less inclined to complain in the first place.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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