Don’t Just Come to Me with a Problem — a Feedback Inhibitor

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I was on a video call with thousands of other employees from all over the world when it happened. Yes, one of the company’s most senior leaders went there:

“I have far more respect for the colleague who brings me solutions, not just the problem.”


Many folks smiled and nodded in agreement. Hundreds of my colleagues showed appreciation by using heart and fire emojis. It was clear that many folks felt empowered, but I couldn’t help but feel this executive just drove a nail into the tire of our company’s feedback system.

There is perhaps no better way to stop receiving helpful negative feedback than to force folks who may have it also to have the perfect solution.

If my car begins to rattle and smoke on the highway after leaving the mechanic for a routine maintenance check, should I hold on relaying that feedback to the mechanic until I know how to fix the car myself?

If a colleague on the supply chain team notices a web performance issue, should they wait to relay that feedback to the web team until they’ve learned how to fix it themselves?

Part of me understands the intention here.

A culture where everybody points out all the flaws while nobody cares to fix anything wouldn’t be a great culture. Such a culture also feels like a complete impossibility, an imaginary scenario. I even wonder if perhaps the reason it’s painted is so senior leaders can psychologically validate keeping everybody in their hierarchical places.

The vibe:

  1. I reached this level by bringing solutions.
  2. You are where you are, lowly employee, because your kind only brings problems.

It all reminds me of this comic from Work Chronicles:

Left panel: Boss, we ran into some issues! Right panel: I've told you before. Don't bring my problems. Bring me solutions. Bottom panel: Later: Apple removed our apps from the appstore. Our website has been hacked. Our data centre has caught fire. The intern dropped a table in production. I tried telling him... guess he'll find out from the newspapers tomorrow.

For decades, various versions of “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” have been part of managerial lingo. And, for perhaps just as long, it’s been called out as problematic.

Way back in 2008, Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei called it out:

“Instead of promoting accountability, it actually encourages employees to turn a blind eye to problems they see but cannot figure out how to fix. When you say ‘Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions,” what you’re saying, in effect, is ‘Of all the problems you find, I only want to know about the ones you can solve.’

Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is.”

Flash forward to today, where organizational psychologists like Professor Adam Grant continue the noble work of calling it out. Here’s what Adam shared with the Nordic Business Forum:

Why does it persist?

As Sabina Nawaz wrote here at Harvard Business Review, it’s to avoid the type of culture we mentioned earlier:

“A key reason is because they want to avoid a culture of complaining. But communicating about the potential pitfalls and roadblocks for an initiative is different from complaining, and it can take a more positive form. When issues are communicated properly, it creates an environment where people feel safe to bring you bad news early, giving you precious lead time to avert a crisis.”

What’s an alternative?

Folks still using this phrase (and props to you if you can admit it) would be far better off swapping those seven words for these eight words:

Bring me problems and we will seek solutions.

An executive suite with a desk and four chairs in the center. Featured prominently on the wall is a sign that reads: "Bring me problems and we will seek solutions."

With this version, you are:

  1. Encouraging folks to, in fact, flag problems.
  2. Promoting the collective “we,” which is usually how problems are solved.


How to build an effective feedback culture: