If you've ever heard the phrase uttered, or said it yourself, you probably had a very particular meaning in mind (the last one on this list). But how else might it be interpreted?
That's Not What I Meant! (Hopefully)
I don't want to hear your problems. // I can't be bothered with your problems. // I don't have time for your problems. - I'm overwhelmed - everyone's telling me their problems. I've got problems of my own and no one to take them to. I'm tired of it. Or, maybe it's just you. I'm not interested in your problems because I'm not interested in you. (You're whining, not bringing me a serious problem we need to solve for.)
I don't know how to fix your problems. // I don't understand your problems. - Your problems deal with a specialized subject that I'm quickly out of my element when we talk about. Frankly, I'm uncomfortable talking too long about the subject, lest you uncover my ignorance and judge me for it.
I can't fix your problems. - You're right, that is a big problem. In fact, you regularly bring me intractable problems that I can't figure out the answer to. And I hate feeling like that. So don't bring the impossible problems to me.
Your problems aren't really problems. - Most of what you bring me aren't problems. They're easily solvable, we've solved them together in the past. You're not thinking broadly, clearly, you're not bothering to leverage past learnings or you're not stopping to consider the context of our business. The cost to address/solve isn't economical when compared to the cost of accepting as-is. This isn't a priority for the business/bottom-line/my scorecard.
Don't wait for me, just fix it. - If I solve your problems, you're not growing. I do not want you to grow complacent, to become trained to look to me to fix everything for you. I might not always be there, or waiting for me may cause unnecessary delays.
This is What I Really Meant
You are authorized, deputized and empowered to go forth and solve it. I will back your decision as long as you can prove you've thought it through. - This is what 100% of people will claim they intend when they utter this phrase. The problem, however, comes when people are not truly deputized, or if they feel micromanaged or that they will be second-guessed, challenged or that their solutions will be picked apart, dismissed or aborted. The person who truly means this phrase has developed a culture that rewards initiative, innovation, has a strong reporting/feedback structure so that when a solution isn't optimal, everyone learns from it to better inform future solutions.
There must also be a mechanism for bringing problems to light where the escalator isn't responsible for the solution - because it's not their area of expertise. Not silos, per se, but respecting areas of authority/responsibility.
Unless it's truly a bad boss, the ideal is somewhere in the middle: Don't bring me a problem you haven't thought through. Think about the problem, validate that it truly is a problem. Investigate some possible solutions. If you can execute the solution yourself, do so. If you can't identify the the optimal solution, then come to me. Bring me the clear, concise and well-articulated problem statement. Bring the recommended solution(s). Anticipate my follow-up questions as I seek to understand the problem, including business rationale and be sure to think about how it would impact me at my level, or how it would impact my boss. Be prepared to act upon the solution selected (or a new solution identified) by the boss. A well-prepared plan of attack will look like validation from your boss for the hard work you've put in.
But never should it be a reason to fail to bring problems to light nor should there be any whining.
Of course, all of this presumes something's not on fire. This is why there are procedures put in place in advance to guarantee consistent response when there's an emergency, including the notion that when a problem needs to be escalated quickly that one person attends to the problem while a second person is sounding the alarm.
So... what about you? What do you hear when you hear the phrase "Bring me solutions, not problems."?