In today’s workplace, there’s a valuable skill lacking in many of us, but one we can fortunately all master: the art of bringing a problem to the boss.
When problems arise, we let panic set in and allow our basic instinct to take over. It’s fight or flight, which often leaves us defensive or defeated — neither of which are the best way to bring something to management.
Before barging into your manager’s office or sending off a convoluted email, we suggest you do the following:
1. Don’t say anything.
That got your attention. Now, we’d never suggest hiding a problem from management, but your first reaction shouldn’t be to take it directly to your boss. Instead, collect yourself and do your best to identify why it’s happening. Once you get a clearer picture of the situation, try to determine the ideal outcome. Then, brainstorm some potential solutions that might get you to this outcome and evaluate each to decide if one makes the most sense. The goal is to bring your manager potential solutions, not just the problem.
By leading with a solution, you’re still making management aware of the problem, but the conversation starts from an entirely different place: positivity and action. If you’re unable to come up with any solutions, you’re in a much better place to provide context and answer questions — and there’ll be questions.
2. Go down the line.
Sometimes, a problem isn’t a problem for your boss, so a better resource may be a coworker. Let’s say, for example, you run into problems with one of your daily responsibilities. One of your peers may have experienced something similar and can offer some much-needed advice. Consider who you need to consult, and if it’s someone other than your boss, go to that person first.
3. Read the room.
You’ve got a mess on your hands, but your boss might be busy with his or her own crisis — and multiple ones, at that. Make yourself aware of what else is going on in the office. The last thing you want to do is spring a problem on anyone when he or she is feeling overwhelmed. The conversation won’t be a productive one.
4. Schedule time.
Assuming your boss is not busy putting out other fires, give a head’s up that there’s a problem you’d like to discuss. Ask whether now’s a good time to talk or if a little later that day would be better. Just pay careful attention to your tone. Chances are, the sky isn’t falling, so keep it positive.
5. Own the problem.
If or when you’re meeting with your boss, explain the situation as honestly and objectively as possible. If the problem is of your own doing, cop to it and make it clear that you know the problem is yours to solve, but would like suggestions or feedback on whether a potential solution makes sense for that situation. Approaching the problem in this way puts your manager in a position of offering advice, which is something he or she would prefer to do — as opposed to solving the problem for you.
Try not to start the conversation with an apology. Instead, mention how you’d really appreciate his or her input in determining the best way to respond to the situation. The art of bringing a problem to your boss is all about how you position the problem.
When we say listen, we’re not talking about listening to the suggestion or advice. You know to do that. What we’re getting at is taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn from your boss. Think of it as a coaching or mentoring opportunity on how to best solve a problem.
You may want to take a copious amount of notes. The same problem may come up down the line, and you want to make sure you document how to solve it. Going back with the same problem again and again doesn’t paint you in the best light.
Bringing a problem to your boss can be scary, especially the first time. But when you take the time to understand the problem, come up with some potential solutions, and take responsibility for the part you played in the situation, your manager will be glad that you brought the problem to his or her attention.
If you’d like additional information on this or any other topic, please let us know. We’d be more than happy to provide you with helpful materials and tools. In the meantime, check out our career resources and blog.