Bring your boss options, not just problems

Suppose you’ve discovered a problem. Maybe a computer chip factory run isn’t yielding the results you anticipated or perhaps you’ve discovered a database connection pool leak. Whatever it is, you are now in the position of having to deliver bad news to your boss.

Nobody likes to do this but, at one time or another, everybody had had to. What’s the best way to tell your boss about a problem? Bring options.


“Lord Vader, I’ve discovered a power loss at one of the seven terminals that connects the tractor beam to the main reactor, which has rendered the beam inoperable.”

Pretty good, right? It gets to the point quickly and presents not only what the problem is (the tractor beam being inoperable), it also explains why (the power loss at one of seven terminals) it is happening. And the guaranteed response from this statement is “So what are you going to do to fix it?”

A manager is responsible for many things. Often there is a budget to balance, which includes salary and benefits for all employees as well as travel and training costs. There are schedules to maintain and development processes to follow. Team building, morale, and growth opportunities for individuals in the group need to be considered.

With all these things to worry about, managers are not in the business of solving problems with the products they manage, the people who work for them are. That’s you.

So since you know the question is coming and you know the last thing your boss wants to hear about is all the reasons why certain things won’t fix the problem, take the time to think about what the possible solutions are. Pick the best two or three and enumerate the trade-offs that each one presents.

When you have this bad news to report, give a fuller description that includes the options:

“Lord Vader, I’ve discovered a power loss at one of the seven terminals that connects the tractor beam to the main reactor, which has rendered the beam inoperable. I could short circuit the tractor beam coupling so that it only requires six of the terminals to be connected or we can take the time to fix that faulty seventh terminal. The first option will take less time and manpower but not be the long term solution that the more expensive second option will be. What would you like me to do?”

That’s not to say that you won’t get questioned on other possibilities or challenged on the facts that you’ve presented, but it at least shows your boss that you’ve thought about the situation throughly and are not treating him or her as the complaint department.

By presenting multiple options, you give your boss the ability to weigh in other factors that you might not have visibility to that they want to optimize above all others. For example, a valid boss response might be:

“Short circuit the tractor beam coupling. We have intruders aboard who are raiding the detention area and the priority is not allowing them to escape. Once we have dealt with them, we can go back to your longer term option.”

Maybe you didn’t know there were intruders running around the space station and would have preferred the longer term fix, but by presenting choices you let your boss inject facts beyond your visibility into the decision.

You’re an average employee if you do what your boss tells you to do. You’re an excellent employee if you do what your boss tells you to do before he or she tells you to do it. You’re a superb employee if you make your boss’ life easier.

Coming to them with solution options instead of just the problems when things go wrong makes their life easier and you a bigger asset to them.


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6 Responses to “Bring your boss options, not just problems”

  1. Liz Handlin Says:

    Great post Pete. One major difference between valued employees and annoying employees is that the valued employees suggest solutions rather than just pointing out problems. In other words, the valued employees don’t create lots of additonal work and headaches for their bosses. Love your blog.


  2. petecj2 Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Liz, I really appreciate it!


  3. MPGNETZ Says:

    So what if you work for an asshole, who dismisses everything you tell them becasue they suffer from the look at me disease?

  4. Pete Johnson Says:

    @MPGNETZ – I’d say you have to figure out how much that bothers you and think seriously about getting a new boss.


  5. Antique Tractors Says:

    Nice looking blog. Which template are you using? Nice post as well!

  6. 11th Hour Service Says:

    Very good post. This is something that employees should remember. Doing this saves your boss’ time and helps you get a better result, because often they were thinking about or might be working on something else or the boss might not know or remember the specifics of your project.

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