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Don’t Bring Me Your Problems


Are you tempted to tell your team not to bring you any problems unless they also bring you solutions? Let’s glimpse a typical lunch for a busy dentist. You’re gulping down your sandwich, returning emails, reviewing patient notes and keeping a desperate eye on the clock. Then the procession of disgruntled team members wanders in. Each one has a complaint about someone else. The ones who do not have a complaint, are asking if they can leave early, change a system or buy something expensive. Literally and symbolically, they dump their complaints and requests on you, who they expect will solve their issues and make them happy.

If this resembles your lunch “breaks” then mandating that your employees solve their own issues sounds like a great idea! Ideally your team will stop complaining about issues or other people and will, instead, focus on fixing things themselves. What could go wrong?

Ah, but there are often unintended consequences to the best ideas and a Harvard Business Review article titled, The Problem with Saying “Don’t Bring Me Problems, Bring Me Solutions describes how this approach can backfire.

The author notes that requiring employees not to talk to you unless they have solutions can create the following issues:

  • Employees may avoid sharing any problems with you since they don’t have a solution in mind. This, of course, can lead to huge issues since you won’t know about small problems until they explode into a crisis.
  • Employees recognize that staying on your good side means only sharing good news so-they only tell you about what is going well, which gives you limited information and creates a leadership blind spot.
  • Employees do bring you solutions to their problems but get so vested in their proposal -They won’t consider hearing other solutions that may work better.

So, as exasperated as you may be, mandating that employees can’t bring you problems unless they have solutions, may only create other problems.  At the same time, allowing employees to dump their complaints and issues onto you, expecting you to be the problem wizard is also not a viable or healthy solution.

Here is your real challenge: How can you create a culture where employees take more ownership of their work and their environment? The author of the HBR article writes that there is an alternative to the solutions only mandate. She suggests employees should change their complaint statements into problem statements.

ComplaintsProblem Statements
Contains absolute language with villains and victims. Employee doesn’t take accountability or ownership.   “They always/never…” “I can’t…” “She made me…”Provides facts, suggests underlying causes, with objective description of how everyone contributed to issue.   “In the last 3 days, we started late which meant…” “I have been struggling with…because…”

Complaints and Victimhood

When employees are vested in making complaints, they see themselves as the hapless victims of circumstances (the patient was late) or of nefarious co-workers (she isn’t doing her job). Unfortunately, there is a perverse currency and power in presenting yourself as a victim. If you are a victim, you can’t be blamed for a failure and you can’t be expected to remedy the situation.  Victims get sympathy and understanding.  When an employee invokes victim status with you, there is an expectation that you will take decisive action to rescue them; you will remedy the situation and mete out punishment to the accused.  Sadly, this is more reminiscent of a parent/child relationship than adult-to-adult communication.

Personal Ownership

Let’s contrast the victim mentality with an ownership mindset.  When you have an ownership mindset, you recognize that while external events may negatively affect you, you still “own” the results and you are still responsible for your reaction and your response. Employees who take ownership have a “the buck stops with me” attitude. When there is a problem, they acknowledge it, look for ways to prevent it from reoccurring, minimize the consequences and work to solve it.

Let’s see how these two approaches play out in the practice with a hygienist who constantly goes past her scheduled time with patients, creating a backlog and customer service issues. 

How it Sounds

Complaint/Victim Mentality: “Look Doc, I can’t help it. My patients want to talk a lot and they ask me questions when you leave the room. You tell me to sell dentistry and that’s what I’m doing.  And the prophys themselves take twice as long because my instruments are so old. I’ve asked you to get me new ones, but you haven’t listened to me. I’m doing the best I can here.”

Ownership Mentality: “I see that I’ve been spending more time with patients than I anticipated and it’s causing problems with my other patients and for the practice. I do need to change this and I’ve thought of a couple things we could do differently. Would you be willing to meet with me to talk about how to manage the periodic exam so the patient’s questions get answered while you’re in the room? Also, I’d like to get your input on how I can best use our instruments and technology so that I can be thorough but quicker.”

When you examine the contrast to the two approaches, you can see that the first hygienist used more “You” words because she blames external forces for the problem. The second hygienist uses more “I” words and although she acknowledges there are issues affecting her performance, she doesn’t focus on blame but rather on jointly solving the issues.

Right now, you may be thinking, “Yeah Sharyn, but how do I get my employees to change their complaint mindset to an ownership mindset because they are making me crazy?” (Note the last part of that sentence was actually a victim statement!) We will explore how you can change your practice culture in the coming weeks.  But I do have one shortcut you can teach to your team right now.  When an employee comes to you with a complain or victim language, stop them and ask them to reword their statement to this:

I didn’t anticipate that… so now I will…

This format forces the employee to take some ownership and to focus on making a behavior change. Try it out for yourself.

Let me know if you want to change your practice culture. I can help with that!

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Inspired Us to Dream Bigger, and it Works

“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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