advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Everyone keeps bringing me their problems

I’m a manager who’s still relatively new to the role (I’ve been at it about 9 months now). One thing I’ve noticed is everyone seems to be coming to me with their problems – more so than my colleagues even. And by “problems” I mean their issues, concerns, complaints, or basically anything that they feel needs fixing, or requires help in some way. While I’m happy to assist when I can, I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. I mean, I’ve got a lot of other responsibilities too! Is this typical? Even those who don’t report to me directly seem to be seeking me out. Is there a way to gently discourage this without coming across like a complete a**hole? – Name withheld

Yes – there’s plenty you can do to stop people from bringing you their problems to solve.

Here are (3) techniques that, in my experience, are particularly effective:

(1) “Your problem isn’t actually a problem” – A manager’s first line of defense is to explain that what the employee thinks is a problem isn’t really a problem at all. For instance, when I was working as a scientist in research and development, I once asked my manager if the company would buy a specialized piece of equipment even though we had this instrument already. It was being used so heavily we were having to wait for it, I pointed out, which slowed our pace of research. He replied by saying this sounded like a “planning issue” and that I and my colleagues needed to manage our time better. Perhaps we could stay late, or come in on weekends when it would almost certainly be free?

(2) “That problem is already well within your power to solve” – If that doesn’t work, explain to the employee they can solve the problem for themselves, if they just thought about it for a moment. For example, when I later pointed out that our now overused equipment would require more frequent service because of its overuse—and which we paid a contractor to do—my manager suggested that I learn how to maintain the machine myself. That way I could both solve the problem and save the company $$$.

(3) “I’ve already thought about that, and it’s impossible” – Finally, a manager can always claim that things are the way they are for a reason – that reason being above the pay grade of whoever brought the issue to their attention. “Budget limitations” is always a good one to invoke; ie. Maybe next quarter I’ll be able to get that approved. We’ll just have to wait and see

Mind you, none of this is good management.

As I’ve said before, effective managers listen to, and then do what their employees ask them to do, to the extent that’s possible. It’s about support, in other words, not dodging their requests. So to your credit, the very fact that you’re hearing these workers out is commendable. If nothing else, employees appreciate it when a manager listens to what they say, and appears to take their opinions seriously.

(I would just add that the reason you may be on the receiving end of a disproportionate number of these requests could be because your colleagues are employing the above techniques already.)

But yes – if your goal is to avoid the hassle of folks unloading their problems on you, this should do it. If they’re like most people, they’ll quickly realize doing so will only result in more work for them, the feeling that they’re a bit stupid for approaching you in the first place, remind them that they lack the authority to do their job they way it should be done, or some combination thereof.

That way you can get back to the important business of…what did you say you had to do?


  1. Bill

    As far as I can see, this manager is already halfway there in that so many people are seeking them out. If I were THEIR manager I would do everything I could to encourage, publicly recognize and financially or otherwise reward whatever behavior is causing them to act as a magnet for employee suggestions disguised as complaints.

    It’s too bad people view being sought out and confided in as a burden or a distraction. When actually it’s an opportunity to learn more about what’s happening on “the line” (as we used to call it in finance) and what roadblocks employees are experiencing. And yes, obviously, find ways to address the sincere (and, honestly, not universal) desire to do better for the organization and its clients.

    One possible issue I’m familiar with is, in most larger organization’s at least, there are always a few people who are experts at gaming the system (in my own experience). This is obviously a very subjective judgment but at times an accurate assessment.

    I’m curious what the SII would say is the best way for a “loerarchical” manager to deal with this sort of situation? Which could potentially interfere with / decrease the ability of an effective manager to maximize the time and effort he / she can spend helping to resolve obstacles employees have surfaced?

    • the subordinate

      In a loerarchy, a manager’s job IS in fact to do what this manager appears to be doing – that is, support and problem-solve at the behest of employees. Managers would be evaluated (by their employees) based on their capacity and willingness to fulfill this one responsibility, so it becomes in their best interests to behave this way.

      Under this system, managers are even likely to compete against each other to prove who can be the most helpful, as opposed to practicing the avoidance techniques I describe in this post…


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