Don’t Come to Me with a Problem

I have heard many leaders use some variation of this quote with their sub-ordinates. In the video below, coach Marshall Goldsmith and Sam Shriver share why this is probably the worst thing that a leader can do to their sub-ordinates and their companies.

Please take the time to watch the video before we continue our conversation.

This video is part of a series of conversation that both these gentlemen have and I think it is worth your time to listen to the entire series. But for now, lets focus our attention on this particular topic at hand.

When you dig deeper, you find the most managers or leaders use this not to help their employees but use this to hide behind this quote. This sounds like you expect your team to know or have solutions to all problems and that these are trivial issues that you don’t want to be bothered with, as you have to deal with higher order of things to think through.

Most leaders use this to hide the fact that it is possible that they might not have all the answers, so they use this statement to hide their fear – the fear that they might be judged by their employees that they don’t have all the answers. What Marshall and Bob are trying to tell here is that it is ok to not have all the answers – it is ok for both the employees and the leaders to not have all the answers. They can work through the problem and can come up with the answers.

Some of the problems that this creates is:

  1. Employees learn that if they have a problem, they have to either solve it by themselves or ignore the problem, rather than bring it up for discussion.
  2. Employees also learn that they can’t trust their leaders to help them off, in situations of need.
  3. This is also a great coaching opportunity that went waste.
If your employees come to you with a problem, use it as an opportunity to coach them. Click To Tweet

I have seen one leader,  who used such instances to coach his employees very effectively. Lets call this leader – Murali. Lets assume that you have a problem for which you don’t have a solution and your went to Murali and shared your problem. The first thing that he would say is “Great. Now, let’s get to work”. He will then ask you to explain the problem in detail. He will prod you to tell him what you think caused the problem. IF you don’t know, he would ask you to take your best guess and then ask you how would you verify or test this assumption about the cause of the problem.

He would get you to then validate the cause of the problem and once the cause had been confirmed, he would then ask you if you still needed his help. If your assumption about the cause was not true, he would then ask you why did you make the assumption in the first case and why do you think it turned out not to be the case. Then, he will continue the same process until, you found the real cause of the problem. In most cases, the biggest challenge that people have when it comes to problem solving is identifying the right problem and the underlying cause of that problem. Once that is done, it is generally easy to find the solution to the problem.

In case, you could not figure out a solution, he would again use the same process – ask you to make a hypothesis for a solution and then use the cause and effect mechanism to figure out if that hypothesis is true and if the idea would solve the problem. If not, start over again, but before doing so, reflect on why the initial hypothesis was wrong.

This way, every time one of his employees came to him with a problem, he used it as an opportunity to coach his employees on how to go about solving their problem. With time, the instances of his employees coming to him with their problems reduced as they had learnt the process to use to solve their problems themselves. They would still go to him with problems that they couldn’t solve themselves, but then these were problems that are much more complex and usually required his expertise and in most cases for him to intervene to solve the problem.

Murali was indeed my first boss from whom I learnt a lot about management and leadership – his ability to remain open and generally not order you to do something just because he is the boss and due to his authority. He mostly allowed us to get to where he wanted us to go by allowing us to figure it out ourselves. I would take this opportunity to thank him and all the other leaders who have taught me all that I know about leadership and how to lead. #Gratitude.

First Step in Solving any Problem – A lesson delivered by Mulla Nasruddin


1st Step in Solving a Problem (1)

Let me tell you one of the many inimitable stories of Mulla Nasruddin..

A man had fallen between the rails in an underground station and people were crowding around, all trying to get him to safety before the train came and crushed him.

They were shouting “Give me your hand! Give me your hand!” But the man would not reach up.

It so happened that Mulla Nasruddin was around there as well, watching from among the crowd. Seeing this, he elbowed his way to through the crowd and leant over to the man.

“Friend,” he said, “what is your profession?”.

“I am an Income tax inspector” gasped the man.

“In that case,” said Nasruddin, “Take my hand!”. The man immediately grasped Mulla’s hand and was hauled out to safety.

Mulla Nasruddin, then turned to the open-mouthed audience and said – “Never as a tax man to give you anything, you fools.” and walked away!!

There is a very important lesson for all of us here.

The moment we are presented with a problem that needs to be solved, more often than not, our first reaction is to start coming up with ideas to solve the problem, without even stepping back to understand the problem.

The first step in solving any problem is to first understand the problem in more detail – understand the context of the problem, understand who is getting affected and how, why is the problem a problem in the first place and many more probing questions to understand the problem that you are trying to solve.

Good and permanent solutions to problems usually follow a few good probing questions.

So, next time you are about to solve a problem, stop and ask a few probing questions to understand the problem before moving on to ideas..