Problems and solutions

Paul at Brand Autopsy writes

One of the earliest business rules I can recall that made a HUGE difference in my professional style was…Never present a problem to your boss without having a suggested solution ready. Don’t be part of the problem be part of the solution.

It sounds like this rule has inspired and supported Paul in lots of ways. I’m curious to hear some examples as I know Paul to be a highly creative positive kind of guy.

I also notice this rule alarms me.

Like most (all?) rules for human behaviour, I suggest this one needs to be broken, or at least reframed, sometimes. How do groups of people deal with really intractable but important problems if they can’t start from where they are – and if where they are is confused, uncertain or feeling helpless – then what is so terrible for us about meeting them on that ground?

I dislike that formula, “don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution”. I can see a positive intention, AND this sort of mantra can also be a great way to stifle doubt, criticism and evaluation; to prevent the kid from telling the emperor he’s naked.

And there’s a world of difference between my saying I see a problem and me being a problem. Muddling someone’s behaviour with their identity is a great way to get a fight going but a poor way to support exploration. If the “boss” doesn’t like what his subordinate says, he could own his own frustration instead of just labelling his colleague. Or, good heavens, maybe he could attempt to empathise with the problem-seer? Or perhaps they could both acknowledge they have different perspectives and that this might be the basis for an important conversation together.

And what is wrong with an interaction where one person sees a problem and another sees the solution? Suppose I have fallen off a boat and am about to drown. Behind me, out of my sight, someone has thrown a lifebelt. I cry out, in panic, “Oh my god, I’m drowning”. Do you reply (A) “There you go again being negative, come back to me when you have a solution” or (B) “Look behind you, there’s a lifebelt.”

Sometimes the mere statement of a problem is a positive step towards finding a solution.

(For the intractable “wicked problems” of life, sometimes there are no “solutions”; the only sane course is to explore and feel our way through, never achieving absolute certainty. The demand for solutions in such situations can just lead to more trouble.)

Instead of lecturing the subordinate about being positive, maybe it’s for the boss to have sufficient courage – compassion even – to recognise, and acknowledge, where the other is. If we’re so damn full of positive feeling, let us lead by example, not start issuing orders to others. I am going to indulge in quoting myself here:

I think acknowledging other people’s experience can be remarkably powerful, especially in situations of conflict. Yet it’s something we as a race are incredibly bad at doing.

What we like to do is offer our interpretation of what someone tells us, or rush to suggestions on how to avoid having certain feelings, rather than simply acknowledge them.

Time and again, I find that when I stop and simply let someone know I’ve heard what they said, and the way they said it, the quality of conversation improves for both of us. And when others do it to me, the impact is similarly strong.

5 thoughts on “Problems and solutions

  1. Paul Goodison

    I found myself getting angry at this – because I recognise this behaviour so much in people who have been my boss and worst of all in myself. I imagine that there will be say people who suggest that being positive is the only way to be and yet if you choose to ignore the issue surely you are in just a bad way as if that is all there is?

  2. Martin

    Hi Johnnie – interesting post!

    I think I tend to agree with Paul. Here’s why: I consider this business rule less like an actual rule and more like a guiding principle that makes interactions with supervisors of any sort more professional. It’s basically a rule of thumb for “self-marketing”.

    Some people, at the beginning of their career, have the tendency to simply report a problem (To an extent, I was one of those people). Then they wait and expect the boss to give them the direction in which they should go to solve that problem. That takes up time and ressources from supervisor people who usually tend to be the bottlenecks anyway. And it makes the person coming with the problem look helpless and somewhat unprofessional.

    Keeping that rule in mind, someone will rather sit down and think just an extra five minutes about the options that might be available to solve the problem. That way, they can present the problem and say “Here’s what could be done about it, my preferred route is B, what do you think?” Huge difference to the other guy – here, you don’t just spit out a problem in front of someone, but ask for a piece of advice. Psychology says (so I learnt recently) that asking advice from people actually makes them appreciate you more.

    So in a nutshell: If you follow the rule, you make your boss’ life easier, you yourself look more professional, and you might actually even improve the relationship. (If this all sounds like sucking up, I would like to point out that personally I just hate it when someone comes to me, says “here’s my problem, and now what?!”, and then looks at me with those wide open eyes…)

    And that way of presenting it doesn

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Martin: Thanks, good response.

    I think it’s a matter of interpretation and the approach you take makes sense. I’d be happier thinking of the rule as a suggestion rather than an instruction. Glad you agree about the “part of the problem” formulation.

    Sorry about the preview, it’s a small bug in Movable Type which I think will get fixed in the next release. I’ll edit out the extra spaces manually.


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