I don’t like the word problem. I mean, it’s not blatantly offensive like the c-word, or decaf. But I hate what it has come to signify.
What do you hear when someone says, “I have a problem.”
I’ll tell you what I hear. I hear, “I have a problem and I need you to handle it, because I can’t.”
When someone says they have a problem, it’s like they’re implying that they’ve got some obstacle that is insurmountable and they’ve abdicated their responsibility to overcome it.
I have little appetite for such problems.
So I apply a general rule of thumb: Do not come to me with a problem unless you can also provide a potential solution. It doesn’t have to be the right solution. Just show me that you’re trying.
Teddy Roosevelt shared this sentiment when he said, “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.”
Because, it’s easy to find fault. It’s easy to see that things aren’t perfect and that there are important questions that need to be addressed. And it’s easy to hand difficulties off to others. In fact, we’ve been conditioned to do so, first by our mammalian upbringing, and then later by numerous other authoritarian institutions.
This “passing the buck” becomes the default for people once the discomfort elicited by any problem reaches a certain threshold. The fight-or-flight reflex kicks in and many choose flight, rushing to their “superiors” for salvation.
In the workplace, there are a couple of lessons to be learned from this.
The most obvious is to resist the urge to run to your boss with a problem without first giving your best effort at coming up with possible solutions. Always have something constructive to present.
In the rare case that you just can’t seem to figure it out (after, like, days of working on it), walk your boss through your attempts to do so; it’ll show that you’re at least trying. But seriously, with the right information, YOU can solve almost any problem.
The second lesson is for leaders. You, like me, may get annoyed at all of the problems that people bring your way. But, it can also be quite gratifying to be the Fireman, the Answer Girl, the Savior. It’s that feeling when the lowly frontliners are running around frantically, and you my friend, have what it takes to restore peace and unity to the world. (Cue trumpet sound.)
Don’t do that.
Because in doing so, you weaken your workforce; you arrest their development. Encourage your people to take more responsibility by giving them more opportunities to solve their own problems. And that will be much more gratifying.