Bring Me Your Problems; Leave Your Whinges At The Door

Damian Bacchoo
5 min readFeb 27, 2024

I am sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”?

It used to make much sense to me. But now I’m not so sure.

It’s become increasingly evident to me that whilst some tenets of good leadership (integrity and empathy, for example) will probably endure for all time, some things need to evolve.

For example, I recently overheard some students at school working together on a social project. A couple of students were complaining to the group’s student leader that the action plan they had previously agreed was not working.

The student leader, to her credit, listened to her colleagues. And then calmly rolled out that phrase I have heard so many times before in my career:

“Hey, don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.”

I was initially impressed with the confident response. I mean, listening to whinging is always so draining. It was well-intentioned to help these students take the initiative and come up with a solution: rather than waste time complaining about things, they should focus their time more productively. If there’s a problem, get on and fix it!

But then I looked back at the students who had raised the complaint. Rather than being inspired by this call to action, they looked hurt, confused, and deflated.

The idea behind saying, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” seems like a good one on the surface. We don’t want to encourage people to complain all the time. If we find a problem, we should take the time to think of ways they can solve it and only bring it to our leaders as a last resort — as they are far too busy and important to deal with all our problems.

But here’s the thing: it might seem like an excellent way to look at things, but it’s terrible for workplace culture.

When we tell people not to bring up problems unless they have solutions, we are instead creating a culture where people don’t want to speak up.

Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, says that while organisations believe the phrase empowers employees to take the initiative, it teaches them to only speak up about a need if they have a proposal to fix it.

In the process, rather than encouraging problem-solving, this approach creates a culture where people are reluctant to surface problems or be open to discussing them and finding solutions. It is a surefire way of creating a culture where people feel that they are neither seen nor heard, are apathetic, and want to leave.

The irony is that if the intent was to avoid creating a culture of whining, this is precisely what you will get when you tell people not to bring you problems. It’s also why this HBR article recommends that the phrase be consigned to the bin of history.

So, why do we keep hearing it?

If I assume positive intent for a moment, then two explanations come to mind:

Firstly, people must have come up with this phrase and turned it into a mantra for good reason. Indeed, I vividly recall a couple of situations in my career where I have led teams that have just thought of me as the problem solver.

In these situations, I wanted the team to spend some time thinking about how to solve the problem before coming to me: to use their initiative instead of behaving powerless and not to see me as the person who always needs to sweep up and solve things.

Secondly, Teddy Roosevelt once said,

“Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining.”

So, I wonder if there has been some conflation in the words used? When people say, “Don’t bring me problems…” perhaps they actually mean“, Don’t bring me complaints” or “Stop whining”.

Is there a better way?

If we want to build a workplace where people innovate, inquire, and find solutions to hard questions, we need to make it a place where those things are safe to bring into the open. It shouldn’t just be okay, but it should be encouraged to bring up problems.

Once those problems are recognised, we can use the collective brain power of many people to solve them. After all, I often hear that no simple problems are left in the world.

Making it safe to identify problems, even if we don’t have a solution, means a single person isn’t expected to solve everything themselves. Maybe what one person recognises as an issue, another hasn’t noticed but has a solution to offer.

Until we have a workplace where problems can be identified without the immediate requirement for a solution, we’ll never be able to create a culture where people can thrive or feel seen and heard.

Final thoughts

Even though the phrase “Don’t bring me problems…” is so seductive as an approach to increase empowerment or help people manage ‘up’, it is fraught with downsides.

Here are some final thoughts:

It’s worth remembering that not every problem has an easy solution, and we must learn to welcome diverse points of view, even if they involve uncomfortable truths.

As leaders, avoiding a culture of complaining or whining makes sense. But that is not the same as avoiding a culture where colleagues can communicate openly about problems in a productive way.

We may need to work with staff to clarify how to communicate problems in constructive ways. Perhaps we need to be more intentional about the need for facts, examining underlying causes for problems, or even how we might respond to baseless negativity when it arises (which it nearly always will…).

So, where does that leave me? I started this blog by suggesting that some aspects of leadership wisdom need to evolve. If I were to evolve this phrase, perhaps it might end up as something like this:

“Bring me your problems (If you like); keep your whining (if you can)”

Maybe that’s not quite right…but at least I think it’s better than the original!

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Damian Bacchoo

I’m Damian, a high school principal, and occasional blogger with interests in leadership, culture, wellbeing, mental health, and Star Wars!