Toolbox Talks: Is it a present or a problem?


There’s an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where the main character, Larry David, gives Ted Danson a shirt as a present. Ted notices there is a hole in the shirt, but Larry offers up that it’s no big deal and would be really easy to fix. Ted says “If I have to get this fixed then you haven’t given me a present, you’ve given me a problem. What if I gave you a present and said you have to go to Seattle to pick it up? That’s a problem!”

The same goes for reporting issues at work. We often think that bringing up a deficiency or concern is giving supervision a present, and in many ways it is. You are handing them the gift of knowledge about something that needs to be improved. But if no solutions are offered, then it can feel like you just handed them a problem to solve. This is frustrating for leadership because, although you are trying to educate them, they are not in the best position to fully understand the problem.

There is a study by the Japanese guidance quality expert, Sidney Yoshida, called “The Iceberg of Ignorance.” Basically, he says the higher you are in an organization, the less you know about the problems within it. Executives, the top of the iceberg, know 4% of the problems, managers know 9%, team leaders know 74%, and workers—the bulk of the iceberg that sits well below the waterline—know 100% of the problems. So the higher we pass a problem up the organization, the more we are asking it to be solved by the people with the least amount of knowledge about it. This puts leadership in a frustrating position and your present is now a problem.

To combat this, leadership tries to push it back down the organization with the old axiom “Don’t bring me a problem; bring me a solution.” In other words, solve the problem so all I’m getting is a present. This sounds great: Here’s a problem, here’s the solution, all I need from you is concurrence and a green light to go fix it. This is empowering to the worker and easy on the leadership, but it doesn’t always work that way. What if the worker has a real problem but truly doesn’t have a solution and is at a loss? Are you really saying you don’t want to hear about the problem unless there is already a solution? Are you comfortable with this ostrich approach? Also, workers already have a lot on their plate. They will quickly learn to say NOTHING if every time they say SOMETHING it becomes more work for them. “Live with it or take on a special project? I’ll just live with it and hope for the best.”

This is the constant push-and-pull between workers and leadership: Who is going to solve the problem? The person with the knowledge or the person with the authority?

Workers: Understand that your present, without a solution, is a frustrating problem for the leadership that isn’t as informed as you are. You are in the best position to find the right solution, so try to offer one when you can. And when you can’t, don’t just take the monkey off your back and put it on leadership’s. Offer to help solve the problem, not just pass it off.

Leaders: Don’t shut down communication with the “don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution” adage. Sometimes the solution isn’t clear to the worker, but the last thing you want them to do is to remain silent because you only want to hear solutions. Realize that the worker probably knows more about the problem, so ask for their input, perspective, or suggestions to help you solve it.

It’s an odd dance we do. The worker with the knowledge doesn’t have the authority. The leader with the authority doesn’t have all the knowledge. How much more could we accomplish if the knowledge and the authority could work together to solve problems?  Wouldn’t this increased communication and cooperation be a great present to give ourselves?

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.