Four Ways To Solve Work Problems

We treat workplace grievances as part of our lives—but many problems are fixable.

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Leaders can fix most workplace problems, if they own up to their culpability in starting issues at work.

This week, I decided to re-air an episode I did with David Hu, former owner of The Peccary in New Jersey. For one, it felt timely: I’ve been doing research for an upcoming talk I’m giving at High Density, an event hosted by The Barista League, about workplace dynamics, and what we should be expecting from our leaders and managers. As part of that, I wanted to connect with people who don’t sleep on their responsibilities as business owners, and who are gracious and kind with their staff—and in many ways, David embodies that ethos.

In particular, I kept thinking back to a moment in our conversation when David talked about why he decided to open The Peccary:

I think the spark of the idea was sitting in a coffee shop and talking to baristas whom I’ve befriended over the days and weeks and months I’ve visited. A lot of baristas started to tell me about the struggles they have at work.

I’m also trained as an engineer, so when they tell me things that didn’t work that were logistical issues, to me, it was solvable. It wasn’t that difficult. You could sit down and figure it out on paper. Then the design nerd part of me has always been very interested in designing an experience. And I saw a gap in the industry where I can combine those two experiences and try to come up with a solution that works.

My talk will be about how to be your own advocate at work—how to ask for a raise, how to document workplace grievances, or how to hold your leaders accountable. This isn’t going to be any sort of “Lean In” bullshit (you know, the philosophy promoted by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that essentially asks women to take ownership of their own workplace ambitions—and which completely ignores structural and systemic forces that prevent women from advancing in their careers). Instead, it will serve as an acknowledgement that you need to be paid fairly right now, that you deserve respect and equitable treatment from your colleagues—and that most workplaces are trash.

So I was intrigued when David said that most workplace problems, especially in the coffee and service world, were readily solvable. He shares some of the techniques he’s picked up on his Instagram account. Many of his tips feel surprisingly overlooked, and embarrassingly simple to implement. And yet, I’d wager every single person reading this could name at least one workplace they’ve experienced, if not more, where leadership has failed to create an environment that is safe, welcoming, and supportive of growth.

David’s insight is a recognition that bad workplaces aren’t uncommon. He never blames failures of leadership on “one bad apple” or dismisses the experiences of baristas by saying their particular manager or boss was bad. Instead, his work is constructive and broad, meant to inspire leaders to take ownership of their spaces.

What struck me most was the word “solvable.” There are hundreds of terrible things that happen at work that we often write off as part of typical workplace culture, but they don’t have to be. We can fix them. Here are four problems that can be fixed at work—and their embarrassingly simple solutions.

PROBLEM ONE: UNDER-COMMUNICATION

I’d say most bosses under-communicate. This isn’t always intentional, but if you’re at work and your boss tells you to do something, you’re much more likely to do it well if you know why you’re doing it.

Context always matters, and people need details to understand the world around them. Ask for what you want directly and clearly, and if someone isn’t understanding it, find another way to communicate it with them—it’s likely not their fault for misunderstanding, but yours for not making sure they grasped what you were saying.

People want to be good at their jobs. Full stop. So make it easy by making expectations clear.

I once had a boss who didn’t talk to me for a full month. I had no idea why he stopped talking to me and as a result, I started to languish. This is an extreme example, but the power of communication is felt in simple instances as well.

How often do we tell people things like, “I wish I had known that before?” Let’s say your friend is running late to an event that’s really important to you—did they know it was important? How were they to assume, especially if being a few minutes late to things in the past has never been an issue? Context matters here, and context matters at work. Don’t just tell people what to do—tell them why it matters.

PROBLEM TWO: OVER-COMMUNICATION

A friend of mine who owns a coffee shop recently told me she never makes dirty jokes at work, and rarely swears in front of her staff. At first I thought this was a slightly draconian policy, but I came to realize how important this strategy actually is.

Everyone has a different comfort level. What might be funny or welcome to some might feel inappropriate to others, and often the moments when we tiptoe across the line signal that we’re trying to endear ourselves to people in a disingenuous way.

But over-communication isn’t just cussing—it can be any kind of sharing that feels unacceptable, or like it crosses boundaries. For example: One thing that really bugs me is when bosses talk about money—their money. Strange as it sounds, I’ve had at least two bosses tell me I make more money than they do. What am I supposed to do with that information—am I supposed to feel sorry for them? Since I’m the one serving customers and collecting money from them, I probably should be making more money. In my experience, the only reason a boss would share something like this is to be selfish (and to air out some unresolved resentment they carry).

PROBLEM THREE: MISALIGNED PRIORITIES

As a boss, your priorities must contain the priorities of your staff. However, their priorities do not have to contain yours.

We’ve all seen this boss before: the one who is so wrapped up in their own worries they miss the needs of their staff. Something like a pay raise or a vacation day might seem trivial to them. Perhaps they communicate to others how busy they are, and as a result, a worker who was really counting on their six-month raise gets ignored. We saw this happen with the Colectivo Collective, when their warehouse workers kept bringing up their scheduled raises to the COO, and he kept promising to address them—and then ignored them for months.

Yes, running a business is hard. Managing a store or a restaurant, and a large team of people, is hard. But an absolutely essential part of choosing to run a business is remembering the needs of your staff and what’s important to them—it’s not an optional bonus. Your concerns never supersede theirs.

PROBLEM FOUR: PETTINESS AND MEANNESS

This one is hardest for me to expand on, because the solution really is as simple as: Stop being petty and mean.

Let’s go back to the idea that people fundamentally want to do well at work. So when they make a mistake, 90% of the time it’s unintentional. Most mistakes should immediately be forgiven. If a mistake is made repeatedly, you can still approach an employee with kindness and sincerity to address the underlying issue. And you should still forgive it as soon as possible.

That doesn’t mean working with others isn’t frustrating—and when something you find straightforward isn’t landing with someone, it can be really upsetting. But what’s the point of snapping back? Or being curt? Or being sarcastic? That’s an expression of your own frustration, and your staff doesn’t deserve to experience that.

Last year, I wrote about what to do when you’re mad at an employee: Wait 24 hours. If it’s just you being an angry jerk, that 24-hour time period will allow some of your emotions to diffuse. If you wait a day and you’re still upset, then you know it’s a serious issue.


I’m curious to know what other seemingly-complex-but-actually-solvable issues people run into at work. Please leave comments below—I’d love to hear the examples you’ve encountered in your own lives.

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