Problems, Not Complaints

The “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” approach to management can cause employees to feel anxious, breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises.

Many managers keep saying it because they want to avoid a culture of complaining. But communicating about potential pitfalls and issues is different from complaining and can take a more positive form. When concerns are communicated properly, it creates an environment where people feel safe to bring you bad news early, giving you valuable time to avert a crisis.

Staff development

How can you encourage your team to bring up problems in a more productive way?

Make it safe. Modify your behaviour so that people aren’t afraid to bring you bad news. Discussing potential issues can help us to see problems in a new light.

Require problem statements instead of complaints. Although you want people to alert you to potential issues, they need to learn how to distinguish between raising a valid concern and simply complaining. Complaints tend to be stated in absolutes, such as “always” and “never”, rather than in concrete facts. They lack accountability and often have villains (them) and heroes (us). And they often don’t look beyond the surface of the issue. For example, “Yellow Group never hits their deadlines, and we’re always left holding the baby” is a complaint. It makes an absolute statement, identifies a villain, and doesn’t show any accountability on the part of the speaker.

On the other hand, problem statements provide objective facts, examine underlying factors and causes, and reveal everyone’s role in creating the problem, even the person presenting it. A problem statement for the same issue would be something like this: “In the past six months, Yellow Group has missed deadlines four times, by an average of 6.5 days. In two cases we were also unprepared to meet the deadline. However, in the other two cases our group completed our part of the project on time, but we had to work weekends to integrate Blue’s late work so that it wouldn’t impact the customer.”

When the issue is presented in the form of a problem statement, it’s much easier to spot the pattern of repeated delays. Because the person making the problem statement has acknowledge his or her part in the problem, you know they’re open to being part of solution, not just blaming others. This allows everyone to dig in deeper and identify the root cause of the issue.

Find the right person or people to solve the issue. When employees bring you a problem, consider its scope and their ability to solve it. If they can singlehandedly tackle the challenge, they may just need your approval before proceeding. Or they may need you to coach them on how to think about the situation and broaden the field of potential solutions.

If the size of the problem is beyond their ability to solve, someone else might be better suited for the challenge, or people across departments may need to collaborate. In some cases, the problem might be so important or visible that you need to stay involved. Based on the situation, you can coach the individual to stretch their abilities and tackle the challenge; thank them for raising the issue and assign it to the appropriate people to resolve; or bring together several groups to address it.

Your employees are always going to encounter problems. By inviting people to raise problems early, often, and constructively, you reduce fear and increase empowerment and the speed of problem resolution. Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is.

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DISCLAIMER

Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.