IN an organisation, is it helpful as a leader to have people talk about problems that highlight what they see as being wrong within the company?
It’s a question that divides opinions, but according to one renowned psychologist, encouraging people to present problems can actually be beneficial to companies and their growth.
Professor Adam Grant – an organisational psychologist at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania – believes that an organisation’s culture can be strengthened when leaders allow their followers to speak freely and share what’s on their minds.
He said: “I do get why leaders say, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. They want people to be constructive, they don’t want them to whine and complain. But, I think if you create a culture where people can only speak up when they have a solution, you will never hear about the biggest problems.”
I was intrigued by this comment, particularly with regard to how leaders can’t know what’s happening on the floor if their teams aren’t able to express what issues they feel are stifling progress.
To find out more, I wanted to get some insights from other leaders in business to see how they viewed Professor Grant’s opinion.
As expected, I received valuable responses that included a wide range of views. Let’s take a look at a few from the bunch:
“At any level, leaders should expect problems and suggestions for solutions – it’s what leaders do – they have ‘followers’, and subordinates could only look up to them when they intervene in problems and together create a team effort in managing problems at hand. They are not managers!”
“The balance here is not to make the employee dependent on you or a broader team when dealing with problems. You want creativity and independent thinking from team members. I would rephrase to, ‘I am always open to discuss any problems you are facing. But come with your thoughts on what could help solve the problem. I will help you figure out what solution may work best. And if I don’t have an answer, then we will tap every other mind on the team till we find the right answer.’”
“I have to agree with the statement. As it is, in Asian culture especially, employees draw a line between themselves and their bosses, hiding their most honest opinions. Unfortunately, those honest opinions hold the biggest issues within the organisation ‒ and they remain unsolved, leaving bosses scratching their heads about why things aren’t improving. However, the same bosses don’t want employees to come to them with problems, only solutions. So, it becomes a never-ending cycle.”
As many leaders will have experienced, it’s often the case that people will complain about issues in the organisation; however, it usually stops at the point of complaining.
This is where it can get frustrating, because the expectation can feel as though problems should be presented to leaders, and leaders in turn should then fix those issues.
Feel free to speak
Companies that flourish tend to be the ones in which the culture inspires a collaborative approach to problems, rather than the expectation that problems within a company should filter upwards.
Personally, I would suggest that it’s fine for people to talk about problems that exist within the company. Adam Grant is right – how else are leaders to know about the biggest issues that exist if they aren’t made aware of them?
Additionally, an organisation’s culture should encourage people to highlight problems as well as propose solutions. After all, leaders usually have very little time to spare in their day and, as ideal as it would be, we simply can’t know everything that’s going on in the company at any given time.
Therefore, I wonder if the solution to the problem of presenting problems is for leaders to explicitly encourage their teams to feel free to speak out, but also to empower them to say, “Okay, here’s the issue that exists… and I think we should try this solution, which I think will work well.”
By deploying this approach, not only are problems highlighted, but they can also be remedied quickly (or at least, the work to put the solution in place can begin).
Is a cultural shift needed in Malaysia?
I’m also curious to know if, here in Malaysia, there needs to be a cultural shift in business where people can feel empowered enough to take the initiative to highlight problems and offer solutions.
Would it improve engagement and productivity if team members were more invested in their organisation by being involved in proposing solutions?
It’s certainly an interesting discussion to have, and I look forward to learning more from the perspective of others about how we can communicate effectively within an organisation to help it truly flourish.
To me, it surely involves giving employees more freedom to express themselves without feeling that to do so will harm their career in any way.
After all, the majority of people try their best to do what is right for their company, and leaders could benefit greatly by keeping that in mind and actively listening to what their people have to say.
Roshan Thiran is the founder and CEO of Leaderonomics – a social enterprise working to transform lives through leadership development. Connect with Roshan on Facebook or Twitter (@lepaker) for more insights into business, personal development, and leadership.