employee talking to their boss
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What if I told you there’s one simple—though admittedly not always easy—way to make yourself a better employee? What if I promised that this approach would impress your boss, your team, and anyone else you work with, and make you seem far more competent, experienced, and ready to take on more responsibility? And what if I added that you can probably use it at least once a week if not every single day?

Well, here it is: Whenever you’re presenting someone with a question, a problem, or a sticky situation, have a suggested solution, too.

My parents taught me never to show up empty-handed. When you go to a birthday party, you bring a gift or a card. When a friend invites you over for dinner, you arrive with a bottle of wine or dessert. Similarly, when you approach your boss with any kind of query, you should bring at least one potential way to handle whatever it is. Brainstorming solutions might not be as fun as picking out a silly card or baking cookies (and eating a few before you give them away), but it’ll earn you major credibility.

In the most immediate sense, it reduces the burden you’re putting on them to tackle the issue from scratch and do all the work themselves. And because bosses are typically busy people, saving them time and effort is basically like giving them a pile of chocolate. (Relevant: While I was writing this article, my manager came back to her desk announcing that an hour and a half’s worth of meetings had just been canceled and I dare say she was beaming.)

But wait, there’s a metaphorical pile of chocolate in it for you too! While you’re making your boss’s job easier, you’ll also be demonstrating that you’re willing to put in the effort and able to take on bigger, more important tasks. You’ll also be getting actual practice handling complicated scenarios—before you have the onus of being the last word on them. In other words, there’s less pressure at this point in the game. Your answer doesn’t have to be exactly right—the point is just to have one. That’s how you’ll learn. Wins for everyone.

It’s not always easy to figure out what that suggestion should be, but the idea is simple. And you can employ this reframing technique in team meetings, one-on-one check-ins with your manager, email threads about cross-functional projects, Slack discussions that come up spontaneously, and really in almost any situation.

Okay, enough chatter. What does this actually look like, you ask?

If you’re forwarding an email with a proposal from Fran the freelancer:

Instead of: What do you think of the proposal below from Fran the freelancer?
Try: I got the proposal below from Fran the freelancer. I think it’s a good fit for us because [reasons], but I’d like her to revise it slightly to account for [additional factor]. If we move forward I think we should offer [rate]. Looking forward to your thoughts!

If you’re bringing up a client issue with your boss at a check-in meeting:

Instead of: [Client] wasn’t completely happy with the initial plan we submitted, particularly the timeline.
Try: [Client] wasn’t completely happy with the initial plan we submitted, particularly the timeline. I think we could potentially move up the final deadline if we shorten the feedback process—both by moving more quickly from one round to the next and suggesting we skip right from the second round to final approvals. We’d have to make sure to get on the same page internally first in order to make this happen, so I’m happy to draft an email or call a quick meeting with the stakeholders as a next step to see if we can all agree to the change before suggesting it to the client.

If you work with a cross-functional team regularly and the process is inefficient and you go talk to your boss about it:

Instead of: These projects always seem to drag on way longer than they should. I don’t know what to do.
Try: I don’t think the process for these projects is as efficient as it could be and it seems like one of the obstacles might be communication among the teams. So I was thinking we could try having weekly standups, even for just 15 minutes, so that everyone can update the group throughout the process and we can hash out any little hiccups on the spot. We could also start a Slack group so that we have a faster and easier way to share new information and get questions answered. What do you think?

I’ve been trying to infuse this new approach into everything I do at work. While it surely wasn’t the only factor, I’d swear on teddy bears and freshly baked bread that it helped earn me a recent promotion—it certainly didn’t hurt! And getting promoted has only made me more aware that I need to amp it up in terms of brainstorming answers and solutions, taking initiative, and figuring out what the questions are in the first place.

Best of all for someone who’s long struggled with confidence? It not only made my bosses believe I know what I’m doing, but it made me start to believe it too.