Not My Problem – Or Should It Be?

A phrase that really bothers me is “not my problem.” Usually I hear it in conversation with someone who learns of a problem but immediately seeks to absolve himself of any responsibility for the cause or responsibility to help.

I believe a networking professional, whether in pre-sales or working in the field, should have a deep understanding of networking concepts and strong technical experience. But also important are the soft skills necessary to build trust with customers, encourage strong relationships with account managers, and develop camaraderie and collaboration among teams. The words “not my problem” undermine those relationships and therefore shouldn’t be on the lips of a networking professional, let alone any sort of professional.

When I’m working with a customer, I’m often asked to take a look at some issue not related to my project. More than once I’ve had a customer at his wits end struggling with some unrelated issue desperate for advice.

Sometimes the person coming to me is a co-worker on another team. It could be a pre-sales engineer asking me to look over a design for a project to which I’m not assigned. Maybe it’s a project manager asking for help on a project for which the engineer just quit.

The cavalier words “not my problem”, or any comparable phrase with the same sentiment, shouldn’t be my first reaction. Though it may technically not be my problem, expressing that sentiment can be interpreted as aggressive, callous, and in my opinion, unprofessional.

This is true in any relationship such as with the sales team, with project managers, with pre-sales engineers, with the warehouse team, and even with the lowly intern. It also includes relationships to the customer – whether that be the C-level individual signing the purchase agreement or the meek Network Analyst assigned to help me on the project.

Instead of a callous “not my problem”, why not make it my problem? That doesn’t always mean taking complete ownership of the issue, but it can mean offering a helping hand or pointing someone in the right direction.

I understand that sometimes we just can’t help at that moment, and it really could be completely outside our purview to do so. But that doesn’t preclude us from being kind to others as professionals and decent human beings. Doing otherwise hurts relationships which in turn hurts ourselves in the long run.

Here’s a quote from a silly movie:

“…good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior. Oh and you know what else he told me?…I know, I mean I thought a “gentleman” was somebody that owned horses. But it turns out, his short and simple definition of a lady or a gentleman is, someone who always tries to make sure the people around him or her are as comfortable as possible.” (Blast From the Past, 1999)

Yes, it’s a silly movie and doesn’t serve as my moral guide in life; however, I thought these few lines captured the spirit of professionalism pretty well. I can’t solve everyone’s problem, and sometimes it really is so far outside the scope of work that I’m obligated to politely decline. But inasmuch as I’m able and is appropriate, when someone asks me for help in a work context, the decent thing to do is to try – try to help or try find someone who can.

To me, saying “not my problem” when someone needs help is unprofessional and indecent. Instead, remember that people are more than line items in statements of work.



2 thoughts on “Not My Problem – Or Should It Be?

Add yours

  1. There is a very thin line between “Not my Problem” and getting sucked in external requests and losing sight of the important targets.

    Unless you’re a sociopath “yes” is easier than to say “no”.

    There can’t be a general rule because every request is different but there has to be a filter to protect our time without being rude or create relationship problems.

    We must accept that some people will be dissatisfied by our “no” and may complain about that. Maybe gift them a copy of so they understand 😉


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