When you face a problem at work, how you communicate it to your manager can have a big impact on whether or not you move to the next level in your career.
It’s made a big difference in my own career and it’s one of the top things I look for when I’m considering promoting people on my team.
I lead research for Business Insider Intelligence and manage over 20 analysts and editors. At some point, everyone on my team has had an issue come up where they asked me to step in and help out. These issues are usually relatively tough to solve — otherwise they wouldn’t need to be escalated. And that means new work and a new time commitment.
A key to getting ahead is understanding that managers often have an overabundance of employees with problems, but the people that they most like to work with are those that solve them. Bringing a solution to the table rather than a problem is an indicator that you are competent and can big trusted to take on more responsibility.
It’s really easy to spot competence. It’s all in how you communicate the problems you’re facing:
Level 1: ‘I have a problem. What should I do?’
This is a very junior way to communicate a problem. You are creating more work for your manager because you are asking them to solve the problem for you.
It’s okay for entry level employees or employees who are training for a new role, but if you don’t get beyond this type of communication, your career is going to stagnate and you might even be let go.
Level 2: ‘I have a problem. Here are potential solutions.’
Just showing that you’ve thought about how to solve a problem is an indicator of next level potential. You’re still giving your manager work, but if you provide good options for solving the problem, then it’s a lot less work.
Level 3a: ‘I have a problem. Here are potential solutions. This is what I recommend. Here’s why.’
If you can do this habitually and your recommendations are sound, your manager will absolutely love you. No matter what level you are in your career, there are situations where this is the best way to communicate a problem — some problems are going to be outside of your purview to solve and you need a nod from your manager, or the CEO, or the board before you can act (level 3b wouldn’t be appropriate in these cases).
Level 3b: ‘A problem came up. These were my options. I chose to do this, and here’s why. It’s handled.’
“It’s handled” is music to a busy manager’s ears. This is how to communicate issues that have come up that you have authority to make a decision on. It keeps your manager in the loop, so if they’re asked about the issue they aren’t caught off guard, and it doesn’t create additional work.
Level 4: ‘It sounds like you are having this problem. Here are some options to solve it. Here is how I can help.’
If you are anticipating your manager’s needs and providing solutions, then you’ll likely become his or her most relied-upon employee. This is someone who is operating at the next level. The caveat is that in order to do this effectively, your own responsibilities already need to be handled — otherwise it’s going to backfire.
Learning to communicate in a way that will get you to the next level is the easy part. The hard part is developing the skills to solve problems, coming up with good solutions, communicating competence habitually, and following through on what you say you are going to do.