5 min read

People Problems

People Problems
How do you respond when people come to you with a problem, or express a concern?

One of the mistakes I used to do a lot more(I still do, it's a work in progress) as a manager is offer solutions to people right away, the moment I hear them express a concern or a problem. Here's an example -

Team member: I feel like I don't have as much visibility as before into all the projects that are going on

Me: OK. I'll add you to ...(more) meetings

When my wife expresses a concern, or mentions a problem to me, I instinctively feel the need to to take it upon myself to solve it. The behavior is problematic for a couple of reasons, as I've come to realize -

  • Me providing solutions - Sometimes she merely wants me to listen, and is not expecting a solution from me at all
  • Providing solutions too soon - By providing solutions without probing much to understand the problem, I risk providing solutions that are half-baked at best, ineffective, or damaging at worst.
Wife: I feel like I'm not doing well at work

Me: Well, ya. You're juggling a lot of different things, both on the personal and professional front, so you're obviously overwhelmed and/or distracted

Verdict - Useless
Wife: I don't think I'm happy with my job

Me: OK. Why don't you look for a different one then?

Verdict - Expensive/damaging!

Good intentions; Bad outcomes

When I'm engaging in such behavior, I'm doing it with the best of intentions. I care about the person enough and feel responsible enough for helping solve their problems. But good intentions don't always get you good outcomes. While there's nothing wrong with trying to help, there are a couple of problems with being impetuous

  • It might not be your problem to solve in the first place, so you might be misguided about the responsibility and accountability
  • You might not have all the information, or the necessary context to solve the problem
  • By assuming that either you are part of the problem, or the solution, you might be inadvertently conveying to the other person that they are not capable of solving it themselves, which could lead to disappointment, and a feeling of lack of trust or agency, or worse, make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just like overuse and over-reliance on technology makes us dumber without it, handing solutions to people's problems habituates them to outsource problem-solving
  • Your interpretation of it without digging into what the person is saying speaks more about your preconceived notions about the issue rather than how the other person is seeing it

A Framework

Navigating the situation effectively comes down to critical-thinking. A framework that you can practice deliberately at first, until it becomes second nature, can be helpful.

Go beyond the "presenting problem"

I learned about the term "presenting problem" from the book "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone", from Lori Gottlieb. It's used in psychotherapy and describes the problem a patient comes to the therapist with. It's their understanding(or lack of) of what the problem is. Often what's expressed as a problem might be a symptom. Identify the keywords from the expressed problem, think about what the meaning, or the intent behind the message is, try to learn the gap, or the unmet need.

  • Can you explain what you mean by that? – This nudges them to talk about it in a little more detail
  • Repeat the problem to confirm - This is also called "mirroring" and is often used as a negotiation tactic to make sure everybody is on the same page. In this case you'd be using it to make sure you see the problem as they see it
  • Why do you feel that way? – Probes them to think about the reason, i.e. a layer beyond the feeling

Scope, timelines and impact

  • How big a concern is it? How much time, mental bandwidth is it taking from you? What is it preventing you from doing? – This will help you assess the criticality of the situation
  • Since how long have you been having/observing this problem? – If it has been a long-standing problem, it might open up a separate conversation about why they suppressed it for as long as they did
  • What was the trigger for you to mention this? What made you bring this to me?
  • What do you think the cause is, or the reasons are – people, process, or anything else?
  • Do you think specific people, processes, tools, or resources could help?

Desired outcome

  • What would make you feel differently/better?
  • What would it would look like for you when the problem is solved?

Desired outcome often helps rephrase the problem. A few years ago, I presented a problem to myself – I lacked purpose in life, and didn't think I was doing anything meaningful, or useful

After a long period of reflection, I thought about the desired outcome – I felt like work/job was my only identity and so when I didn't enjoy it, I felt like a complete failure. I wanted to diversify my identity. I wanted to be someone who has more sides than merely what they do for work

It helped me rephrase the problem – I want to meet more people unlike me, and explore things – places, and possibilities. It led me to meet people from diverse backgrounds through meetups. I started hiking, running, backpacking, biking, and eventually even starting my own book club!

Potential solutions

  • How do you think we can solve the problem?
  • What do you want to do to help solve the problem?  - Indirectly prompts them to insert themselves and play an active role in the process of finding a solution
  • How can I help?

Action items

  • Identify the things that you and they are going to do towards solving it


Make sure you're making progress towards solving it


I feel like I don't have as much visibility as before into all the projects that are going on

Keywords - Feel, visibility, as before, all the projects


  • What makes you feel that way? What obstacles do you see for you to perform your job well that made you realize that?
  • How was it working before?
  • What do you think has changed?
  • Do you have a sense for where the gaps are?
  • How would you wanna be involved in more projects, and in what capacity?
  • How can I help?
Sometimes you act like an engineer rather than a manager

Keywords - act like


  • Can you give me some examples to help me understand what you mean by that? If you can't think of past examples, can you inform me when it happens again?
  • What is your expectations of me as a manager? What do you see as the boundary between the role of a manager and the role of engineers?
I feel like frontend concerns are not as well understood and represented in the team
  • Can you explain what you mean by that, with specific instances that you might remember that made you feel that way?
  • What can the team do improve the situation?
  • How can I help?
I don't get enough time from you lately
  • Are you talking about 1:1 time, or time with me in various discussions in general?
  • What do you miss the most from our conversations/discussions?
  • How can I ensure you are not blocked because of my availability?
  • What tools, processes and resources might make you more independent and self-serving?