A while back, I got an email from a junior engineer asking whether it was “his job” to address some concerns about a design he had worked on.
Admittedly, I was a bit torn with respect to how I should answer. My gut reaction was that this engineer was trying to dodge taking responsibility for his work, which annoyed me. On the other hand, I’ve preached before about the importance of saying no to work, under the right circumstances. Maybe this was an attempt at focusing on his most important work.
Given the two possible alternatives, why did I automatically err on the side of annoyance?
Having thought about it for a little bit, I’ve realized that the problem was not with the question itself, but with the way the engineer approached the issue that rubbed me the wrong way. I had a problem dumped on my desk, with no real sign of that engineering having put any thought toward it themselves. Or, at the very least, that how it seemed to me.
Bringing your boss a problem is something that is a daily occurrence for most engineers throughout the world. Few of these engineers understand how important it is to approach that transaction carefully. Failure to do so can have significant negative consequences for you – whether you realize it or not.
Given this, I thought I’d share why this engineer’s approach was so problematic for me and how to avoid running into it with your own managers.
Problem #1 – You just made it my problem
If I could tell engineers one thing about getting along with their managers, it would be to be as solution-oriented as humanly possible when it comes to problem-solving.
Most people bring their bosses problems. An engineer will hit a roadblock and go straight to their boss without a moment’s hesitation. Boss, I have a problem. Full stop.
That’s a bad way to approach your work. Why? For every problem you have, your manager has a dozen. Your manager doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with another one, especially if it can be solved by you (the person he’s paying to solve problems).
Instead of presenting a problem, you can present the problem and the solutions you have determined could solve potentially the problem. Then, you’re seeking input on the solutions, as opposed to just dropping by to get a monkey off your back.
As silly as it sounds, bringing your boss solutions instead of problems makes a world of difference in their life. That, in turn, can make a world of difference in your life.
Problem #2 – Showing lack of initiative
When you bring your manager a problem with no solution attached, it says something about you. It says “I couldn’t be bothered to use my brain on this one.” That might not be a fair conclusion to draw, but that’s what happens. Unfortunately, the narrative that gets written about who you are as a professional gets written in other people’s minds. When you dump a problem on your boss’ desk without any kind of insight, proposal, discussion, or anything else, the only logical conclusion that a manager can draw is that you didn’t have the initiative to at least try to figure it out yourself.
To you, asking if something is your problem may be an honest question. This is especially relevant to junior engineers or people who are new to an organization. You don’t always know where to draw the line between your work and somebody else’s work. If that’s the case, then at least come to the table with an explanation for why you’re concerned about taking on the issue yourself, and whose input you think you need.
If you can’t be bothered to move the problem even an inch closer to a resolution before deferring to your manager, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that you lack initiative. It’s your job to make sure that your manager couldn’t possibly draw that conclusion.
Problem #3 – The issue lingers
When you decide to defer to your manager on a given subject, the problem that needs to be addressed automatically takes longer to solve. While two heads may be better than one, if one head is all it takes in the first place, adding a second head just complicates things. It’s (literally) overhead.
As you can imagine, having problems linger around longer than they should is another major stressor for engineers and their managers alike. Do yourself, and your manager, a favour and try solving the issue yourself, asking colleagues for help, or at the very least determining which specific questions need to be answered in order for you to move forward with your problem.
Engineers operate in a world of uncertainty and change. There is no avoiding that and there is no avoiding the associated difficulties. Or, as my father would most eloquently put it: shit happens. How you deal with that reality is going to play a major role in your relationship with your manager and your colleagues. Things are bound to go wrong at work. Those that take the initiative to tackle problems head-on and take ownership of the issues they face are invariably those that succeed at work.
Be someone who solves problems – your career depends on it.