Why 'bring solutions not problems' doesn’t work

Originally posted Jul 6, 2021 • More resources on delivering feedback

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Many years ago, when I asked a very grumpy direct report to “start bringing solutions, not just problems,” it did not go well.

He was a senior IC who would spend a lot of time venting in our one-on-ones about company leadership, strategic direction, other teams’ roadmaps, and so on. I had given him a lot of room to unload, thinking that he needed a safe space to verbally process his thoughts, with someone in leadership who he trusted. And maybe I could help with some of the issues he was seeing!

But that week, I was overloaded with stuff I really needed to focus on, stuff that I deeply cared about. So after ten minutes of listening to a new vent, I said to him, “Listen, I get it. That’s frustrating. But I haven’t heard you help make any of these things better yet. You’re a senior engineer, so it’s your job to help improve things, too. Next time we meet, I want to hear solutions, not just problems.”

I don’t know where I stole that line from—probably some management book, or I heard another leader say the same thing. I meant it, too! I was sick of hearing him complain; it felt so unproductive.

It didn’t work. Even though it made me feel better to say it, it did not result in my report sharing solutions with me the next time we met. He continued to be grumpy, he continued to vent, and I continued to be frustrated with him.

These days, I know better. :)

I’ve seen many leaders make the same mistake, and I’ve been on the receiving end of this request, too! But this line—that feels so satisfying to say!—breaks trust, increases frustration, and has the opposite outcome.

If a leader says this to you

When a leader says “bring solutions not problems,” I’ve found it means one of two things:

  1. Your leader can’t/won’t listen or care about this thing, or
  2. You need to step up your game and adapt.

There’s an equal chance it’s either! Here’s how to identify which one it is, why it happens, and what you can do about it.

If a leader can’t/won’t listen or care about this topic

There are PLENTY of reasons why a leader can’t or won’t listen to you on this issue, or care about it. And the reasons can change for that leader, or overlap, at any given moment! For example:

You can tell your leader can’t or won’t listen to you by watching their body language and responses. If they normally make eye contact but they start looking off into the distance, or if their body language changes to being more “closed” (arms crossed, turned away), that’s a clue. If they change the subject, ask zero questions, or give one-word responses, that’s a clue too.

As frustrating as it is to realize that your leader isn’t listening, I recommend that you hold back from repeating yourself, rephrasing, or bringing the same topic up in each one-on-one. They’re not listening; none of these approaches will get them to start.

You’ve got two options: try using builder statements (I’ll explain this in the next section), or find yourself a better ally on this issue area:

  1. Brainstorm a whole list of stakeholders on this topic: people who are affected by it, or can affect it.
  2. Look through the list and figure out who’s a blocker, who’s an ally, and which are decision makers.
  3. Experiment with approaching different allies instead.

It’s super frustrating when a leader isn’t listening to you. But remember, there’s that whole list of reasons why they might not even be able to listen to you, above. Instead of dwelling on this one leader, go find yourself some additional allies instead.

If you need to step up your game and adapt

If your leader is demonstrating that they’re hearing you—they’re nodding, reflecting back what you’re saying, maybe even going so far as to agree with you—but they’re still asking you to “bring solutions, not problems”? That’s a clue that you need to build up a new skill: builder statements.

I learned these from Paloma Medina (like so many other leadership skills!). If you’ve taken the Influence Without Authority workshop (which I offer in partnership with Paloma!), you’re familiar with builder statements.

As Paloma taught me: builders are solution-oriented, not problem-oriented. Builders get specific and focus on solutions, like “What if we made this here more streamlined - so the finance team could get behind it?” Or, if you’re not sure of a solution to recommend, you might say, “I could use your thoughts. How can we make this process more finance-team-friendly?”

The formula Paloma teaches for builder statements is:

  1. Clarify key facts about the issue. Keep it concise, objective, and as much as possible, quantifiable.

  2. Describe the impact. What’s the negative impact if you do nothing, or positive impact if you create change?

  3. Then offer your proposed solution. What’s your proposed change or idea? Or, what question could you ask this leader to get their ideas on how to tackle it?

I go into this a ton more in the Influence workshop, but there’s plenty of ways to offer an idea for a solution without having it fully figured out. The key is to be flexible on the solution; ask for the leader’s feedback on your idea, or ask who else you should talk to to figure it out.

Your builder statement doesn’t have to be a long presentation or anything. If your leader has asked you to “bring solutions” to the topic you care about, and you think they’re listening, just bring a short and sweet builder statement next time.

If you’re the leader

What if you’re a leader and you desperately want to tell someone to “bring solutions, not problems”?

No matter the reason why you want to say this—you’re frustrated, you don’t care, you’re overloaded, you want them to change their approach—just ask an open question instead.

Steal one of these:

Any of these open questions will put the responsibility back on this person’s shoulders to do more work to address the issue. They also make it clear that you’re not shutting the conversation down; you’re open to listening, you just need them to actively participate in the work.

Pick one of these questions right now and write it down somewhere you’re going to see it when you’re in one-on-ones: a post-it note on your laptop or wall, a bookmark in your notebook, anywhere. That way, when you’re in the moment and maybe frustrated or amygdala-hijacked, you won’t even have to think about what to say next.

If the open question doesn’t get this person to change their approach, you can also try one of these:

  1. Give them feedback on their approach to this conversation. “You’re accurately listing a bunch of things that are wrong, but that alone is not an effective strategy to get other people to care and help. Bringing ideas—or questions!—about an issue is a skill I’m eager to help you develop.”

    Cap off your feedback with another open question from the above list; my favorite in this case would be, “What’s in the way?”

  2. Set a new ground rule: “In each one-on-one, you’ve got 5 minutes to vent. I’ll set a timer. When the timer dings, it’s time to move into solutions or open questions. I know how important it is to have a safe space to unload, and I want to give that to you in our one-on-ones. But then I’ll need you to either change the subject, or problem-solve. Cool?”

    Or one that I’ve stolen from Paloma: “Everyone in this meeting can vent. But if you vent, you need to stand on one leg for the duration of the vent.” Keep it ridiculous, laugh about it together. I’ve seen it work!!

I actually used the 5 minute timer ground rule with my grumpy direct report, but I suggested it in a really lighthearted way. And it worked great. We were able to chuckle about it every time, including when I would grin and tap my watch if he started venting again. And he got the signal quickly, which led to more practice with providing solutions or asking questions. A win for everybody.

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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