Be a Problem Solver, Not a Complainer

Problems are a part of everyday reality in every workplace. That’s true no matter where you work or who your colleagues are. Most of the time, you are probably dealing with problems someone else started. Are you going to be a problem solver, or a complainer?

Often when I talk about being a problem solver, people in my seminars start grumbling. Two major themes emerge:

  1. It’s easy to identify problems, but often you are not in a position to solve them; and
  2. Most of the time, when you go to your boss to point out the problem, it is treated as an unwelcome complaint.

Does any of that sound familiar?

When I say, “be a problem solver”, this is what I mean.



Step One of Problem Solving: Does this problem need to be solved now?

The first thing you must do as a problem solver is decide whether the problem is an “emergency”—something so urgent it must be taken care of now. Ask yourself:

  • What harm could occur if the problem continues to go unresolved?
  • Is time of the essence in order to prevent the harm from occurring?
  • To whom should I report this?

This is sort of like deciding whether to call 911. It is dangerous and irresponsible to try to solve certain kinds of problems on your own, no matter how able and confident you may be. The same can be said of problems at work, too.

Be alert to these types of urgent scenarios and know who to call, how to call, and what to say in the event you’ve identified a problem you cannot solve on your own. But, just as you wouldn’t call 911 lightly, don’t alert your boss to problems at work lightly. If the problem is not urgent, or not within the scope of the manager’s ongoing duties as a leader, you will be delivering an unwelcome complaint.



Step Two of Problem Solving: Consider who you need to bring on board.

If you have determined a problem is not urgent, as the problem solver you must decide how to fix it and create a plan. But before you do, ask yourself: Can you implement a solution to this problem without permission or input from someone else? With most problems at this scale—large enough to impact the team’s results—it is almost never the case that you can implement a solution without first running it by others on the team.

Do a quick reality check:

  • Whose work will be impacted by this solution?
  • Whose help will I need?
  • Whose permission is required?
  • What resources will I need? Who do I need to ask for those resources?

Identify those key individuals and consider them in the first draft of your proposed solution. Then, discuss your draft with those people. The input you receive will be invaluable to strengthening your proposal before it is presented to a final decision maker.



Step Three of Problem Solving: Finalize your plan.

Once you have received the necessary input from teammates, it is time to finalize your plan for solving the problem. Revise and adjust based on the input you received and consider repeating the process until everyone involved feels the plan is bullet-proof.

At this stage, it is important to keep in mind what the expected outcome of the plan is and how success will be measured. After all, it is one thing to perceive that the problem has been fixed and another to confirm that it has.

Here are some things to consider:

  • How do we define success when it comes to solving this problem?
  • What is absolutely necessary for success? What is negotiable?
  • How do we know to consider the plan finished, as a team?
  • How will we track progress and benchmarks?
  • At what point do we decide to implement a different solution, as a team?



Step Four of Problem Solving: Take your proposal to the boss.

Once you’ve accounted for all the details, it is time to take your proposed plan to a final decision maker—whoever that happens to be in this situation. This is the person who will sign off on your plan and (hopefully) provide any necessary support and guidance in carrying it out. It is important that your plan is a solution for all involved, not just more work that the decision maker will ultimately be responsible for.

Don’t be surprised if there is some amount of grilling or pushback, even with the most thoughtfully crafted proposals. After all, it is the leader’s job to ensure that their team’s plans are in alignment with the goals of the organization. And it is also the leader’s job to ensure that their team’s plans are achievable. Assuming you have followed steps one through three, it should be easy to present your plan as aligned and achievable.


Don’t allow small problems to fester and grow.

Of course, the most common problems you will encounter in the workplace will probably not be emergencies or complaints or anything special, for that matter. They are usually small mistakes that occur while you are doing your job. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you should ignore small problems in order to avoid being labeled a complainer!

No problem is so small that it should be left alone. Small problems too often fester and grow into bigger problems. When you identify a problem, even a small one, start focusing intensely on implementing concrete solutions. That is how to truly be a problem solver in the workplace.

If you are talking with your bosses on a regular basis, then talking about small problems—whatever they may be—should be something you do as a matter of course. Addressing one small problem after another is what ongoing continuous performance improvement is all about.


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