leadership, Startup Advice

Want to create a team of problem solvers? Don’t say this sentence to your staff

Emma Koehn /

All business operators their employees to stay focused on improving the business, but one leadership expert says the common phrase “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” is hurting progress.

Writing in Harvard Business Review last week, executive coach and business adviser Sabina Nawaz explains how a tendency for some leaders to demand staff only bring solutions to concerns, instead of simply voicing worries about projects, can lead to a culture where staff only share good news and never bad.

Bosses often demand a solution-first approach to tackling problems, Nawaz says, which can be foolish because most complex business challenges rely on staff working together to come up with a new way forward.

“The ‘bring me a solution’ approach can also cause employees to shut down in fear, breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises,” she writes.

A better way to create a culture of problem solving is to instead make the space for staff to air their concerns, and show them how to do this properly, Navaz says.

This involves two steps.

1. Ensure your leadership style encourages the delivery of bad news

There’s a chance you’re not hearing about problems within your business because staff are too scared to raise them with you — so be critical of your own leadership style, says Navaz.

“When I worked at Microsoft, our reviews with Bill Gates often included detailed discussions about problems. Gates says in his book Business at the Speed of Thought that one of his most important jobs as CEO was to listen for bad news so that he could act on it,” she writes.

“Modify your behavior so that people aren’t afraid to bring you bad news.”

2. Teach staff the difference between problem-solving and complaining

When people are under the pump, they may fall into the trap of venting, rather than raising issues that a team can actually find a solution for, Navaz says.

“Complaints are stated in absolutes, such as ‘always’ and ‘never’, rather than in concrete facts. They lack accountability and often have villains (them) and heroes (us),” she explains.

Instead, consider working with staff to move towards “problem statements” or explanations that are objective, and don’t involve accusations.

“Problem statements, on the other hand, provide objective facts, examine underlying factors and causes, and reveal everyone’s role in creating the problem, even the person presenting it,” Navaz writes.

“By inviting people to surface problems early, often, and constructively, you reduce fear and increase empowerment and the speed of problem resolution.”

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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