I really liked this article from HBR for its common sense advice, and the research also pointed me in the direction of something I had not thought about previously, i.e. thinking about ways in which the recipient can help fix the problem.
In short, we found that pairing the problem immediately with a potential solution dramatically improves creativity and problem solving, but only if it’s the right kind of solution. In this study, 248 participants were first tested on a standard measure of problem solving. For example, one question asked them to list as many uses for a ribbon as they could think of in a specific period of time. Then the participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: in one they were asked to read an article merely focused on a problem, while the other discussed the problem and potential solutions. As an example, one pair of articles looked at shortages at a local food bank. The solution-focused article featured five things you could do to alleviate the problem, including donating food and fundraising. The participants were then given a new battery of problem-solving tasks.
The participants who were presented with solutions carried that positive effect to the new domain — it had a significant impact on participants’ creativity and problem solving ability. Specifically, when people were presented with solutionsthey could actually implement themselves, problem-solving on subsequent unrelated tasks increased by 20%. Reminding the brain that there is a path forward allows you to import that empowered mindset to other challenges. Additionally, being solution-focused made people feel better. Participants reported on average feeling 19% less agitated and 23% less uptight. For a manager leading employees through hard times, this means it is possible to talk about the negatives (such as scarcity of resources) and yet maintain engagement and the ability to solve problems.