By Patrick Hardin

There is one three-word phrase that always sets me off: “not my problem.”  If you say it to me, then chances are we’re not going to get along. If you say it around me, I will show you up. If a leader says it, then they’re not a leader. Let me explain why I loathe that phrase and what should be said instead.

Anytime someone says that phrase, they’re actually saying “I don’t care.” Why do people say it? Well, people who use that phrase sometimes feel that they are bogged down by the world, their subordinates, their boss or their colleagues and don’t want to deal with another small issue that they feel isn’t worth their time. They typically feel angry that someone wants to waste their valuable, precious, oh-so-glorious time fixing an issue, and try to mask it in that trademark passive-aggressive tone that always accompanies that phrase. They say it because they’re tired – tired and egotistical.

I’ve been on the receiving end of that phrase many times, like you probably have. One instance was when a massive event was coming up and nobody had a task for me to do. Literally, I asked every person who was leading a project for that event if they needed anything for me to do, they all said no. So, I asked the advisor of this event if I could instead work on a related item of business. He said no. When I mentioned that I couldn’t find anything to do and asked for a suggestion, he said that phrase.

I was furious. I was livid. I was angry. I was hungry, but that’s beside the point. I’m trying to maximize my contribution to the organization I was a member of, and felt belittled and marginalized. There’s a good chance that you will feel this way when you are on the receiving end of that phrase. When you say that phrase to someone, you might not realize that you’re insulting them. You are telling them that their concerns are beneath you and that the person asking is not worth the breath it takes to solve their dilemma. Using that phrase is outright rude and hurts the people you are around, the exact opposite of what a leader should do. A leader should take the steps necessary to acknowledge and value the concerns of the people around them.

I acknowledge that not everybody is proficient or capable of solving every problem or dilemma. There will be times when you cannot be of valuable assistance to the person who brings you a problem, though I will be glad to offer assistance on how to avoid using that phrase.

1. Take it as a Compliment

Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell once said “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” If someone brings you a problem to solve, take pride in the fact that someone believes you are capable and smart enough to solve their problem. It might just bring a smile to your face when you realize people believe in you.

2. Take Time Out

Your first resort when someone brings you a problem is to be take some time to actually address the issue. Sometimes, you can find the solution to their problem. Sometimes, you come up empty. Either way, take the time and show them that you value them and their inquiries.

3. Connect People Together

There are times on the job, in school, or in my personal life, that I’m not the best person to get an answer from. When that happens, I find someone who can do a better job than me. If you think someone else is a better resource, bring the person who asks the question to the person that can solve the question. Yes, I do mean you, don’t just say “ask someone else”, give the person the resources necessary, like name or contact information, to find the person best fit to solve the problem at hand.

4. Apologize if Necessary

There are times when you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, or who to go to solve the problem. There are dead ends, and when it comes down to it, just be honest, swallow your pride, and show that you do care and honestly can’t help a person any further.

Leadership is a quality we all possess, though there are times we don’t exhibit leadership. It doesn’t matter what your position is in the grand-scheme-of-things, you can be a problem solver. Even when it’s hard, the payoffs are tremendous when you cast aside that phrase  and make it your problem.