The Real Problem Isn’t The One They’re Complaining About

door with title Complaints Dept.

When your employees voice a problem, split off the complainer from the complaint to get at the real issue

(For my previous thoughts on workplace problems and a drama-free workplace, see People are the Problem and Solve it with Structure.)

We live in an age of outrage.

Whatever it is—jobs, schools, restaurants, auto repair, retail shops—it seems like there’s no such thing as a small issue any more.

I mean, have you ever read Yelp reviews?

And it’s no different in the workplace. Some days, it feels like all I hear is people complaining.

All. Day. Long.

“This isn’t working!”

“This thing is squeaking again!”

“She was late!”

“He didn’t show up!”

“They missed the deadline!”

“She did this!” “He didn’t do that!” “Nobody’s doing what we asked!

All. Day. Long.

Honestly, I don’t think people even realize they’re doing it anymore.

In a business or organization, it’s even worse. Those complaints aren’t just a frustrated person venting or overreacting. More than the potential sale lost from a customer complaint, an employee complaint is a problem in your organization. It’s a stumbling block to getting things done, one that has potential to just get worse further downstream.

So you need to get on it. Now.

But you have to do it effectively.

Start With a Question

When one of your employees comes to you with a complaint, start right off by asking a question. But not just any question.

Ask something to interrupt the person’s thought pattern.

You do this to get the individual out of his or her “script”—you knew people have scripts, right? Everyone does, especially by the time they come to a manager to say something. By that point, they’ve gone over it in their head a hundred times at least: what they’re going to tell you, what responses they’re going to refuse to accept. They’re better rehearsed than the leads in the last play you went to see.

And you know what messes up rehearsed lines? Something different. Something unexpected.

I hate to say it, but I often make a game of it. I listen attentively, and as the person finishes the first line of the complaint and takes a breath, I say, “Okay, now before you go any further, tell me something good about this person you’re complaining about.”

You ever see the look on someone’s face when they’re driving and hit the brakes but they’re on a patch of ice and the car slides on instead of stopping? This can get a similar reaction. Almost always, it catches them off guard and you can see their brain racing to find traction on this patch of mental ice you just put down.

You’ve interrupted the script they’re playing out.

To be clear, I don’t do this to be mean. I do it to get them out of complaint mode and into evaluation mode.

With the positive command, “tell me,” I redirect them in their moment of confusion. They almost always come up with something positive to say, and then claw their way back on to script with a “Yeah, but . . .” to keep the complaint going. After all, it is what they came for.

hand to ear. listening.

Next, Make Sure the Complainer Feels Heard

Once the individual has repeated the complaint, make sure he or she feels heard. Do this by using echoing technique to repeat back the complaint: “I hear you’re upset by how she didn’t get that done for your deadline”—hearing their words from your mouth assures the complainer you are listening. Follow up quickly, then, with another positive redirection: “But can we say we do agree she isn’t a horrible person. You may not like what she did or how it affected your work, but you don’t dislike her as a person do you?”

Another redirect—see how I again nudge the complainer to separate the person from the action the complaint’s about?

If the complainer agrees the person in question is fine as people go, you say, “Great! We can work on the issue then—if this was about someone you don’t like as a person, that would be whole a different issue we’d need to discuss.”

See how we’ve separated the person from the problem? As I discussed in my previous blog post, Solve It With Structure although problems are usually associated with people, the way you address them is by putting a structure in place to remove whatever room for error allowed the person to create the problem.

man complaining to boss about coworker

Why Do My People Complain?

First off, they’re human. Cut them some slack. Everybody gets frustrated when things don’t go right, and if it seems one person in particular is the cause… well, it’s often easiest for people to point a finger at someone else. Again, they’re human.

Usually, people complain when they feel a value of theirs has been violated. And as I’ve discussed already, the best way to get to what’s bothering them is to make sure they feel heard and understood, so you can get honest communications from them.

Let’s walk through some examples…

woman with award sitting at her desk
  • “Best of Her Co-Workers”

I had an employee once who always complained about her co-workers. They didn’t work as hard as she did or put in as many hours as she did. She pointed out anytime anyone was late and singled out anyone who failed.

So she had to do everything. Really. You didn’t even have to ask her—she’d tell you.

At first I thought she complained so loudly to build herself up by putting others down (you can make yourself bigger by working and growing, or you can make yourself look bigger by squashing down others around you—one requires hard work and builds your organization; the other requires only targets and can bring everything to a halt).

I could have dismissed her. Easily. But I decided to meet her need by affirming her. I acknowledged all her hard work, but I never validated her complaints by punishing the people she complained to me about. The acknowledgement helped, but she continued to complain about how unfair things were.

At that point, I began to dig into why these things upset her so much. And speaking with her over time, I came to realize she valued fairness and equity much more highly than I did. She saw the world as an unfair place, and she felt it was her job to level the playing field—by pulling, by dragging everyone up to her ideal.

You know what? Not everyone wanted to perform at that level or to strive for perfection. For the most part, they were all quite okay with who they were and where they were, both in life and in our organization.

I decided then that sometimes you just have to value the willingness to do the job. So whenever she complained, I asked her to keep score for me—not just what she did that others didn’t, but also what others did that she didn’t. And I asked her to give them credit for it.

Finally, I asked her what it would take to make everything even and level. I also asked her if she would work as hard if everything were perfectly equal, including if she would like all the paychecks on the team to be the same.

The answer to that was a resounding “NO.”

It took a long time to work out, but work out it did. Had I just processed the complaints, performance across my whole team would have slipped and most of them would have been fired. Or she would eventually have had enough and quit the organization. Or I would have had enough and fired her. But I asked questions, and what I learned was that I couldn’t just dismiss her values—I had to understand what she valued and address her complaints from a values perspective.

man in meeting confused
  • “The ‘What Am I Doing Here’ Leader”

I once worked on a HUGE digital transformation effort involving almost every person at a large non-profit. The core team had formed and was taking an immense amount of ownership, establishing all sorts of formal communication channels including written and verbal status updates as frequently as three times per week.

Except every time we got to the executive leadership level and shared an update, there was one particular person on the executive steering committee who would complain. It was always something—one time it was that we didn’t give enough detail and the next time it was that we gave too much irrelevant detail. Or that we included someone we shouldn’t. Or didn’t include someone we should have.

You get the picture.

It became frustrating because, no matter what we did, no matter how closely we followed the feedback, our updates were never right for this person. Not once. Never.

We felt like we couldn’t win.

The knee-jerk reaction was to hold more meetings and schedule more updates. But that would have wasted time that we needed to put toward doing the project’s work. So I took a step back, and tried to separate the complaints from the complainer. We were clearly doing all the right things, but he wasn’t absorbing the information, no matter how we cut it up, packaged it, or otherwise presented it.

Then I asked myself, “What is it that he needs that we’re not giving him in our reports?”

I thought about how he carried himself in meetings, how I saw him interact with his staff, how he worked with me . . . and it hit me. He was a leader. A strong leader who was accustomed to being in charge and making all the calls and decisions.

I realized this because I’m somewhat the same. When I’m in a meeting, in order to take in the information being presented, I need a purpose for being there, whether it’s determining next steps or just taking the meeting minutes. Without that kind of context—without something I’m supposed to be doing in the meeting—I have trouble keeping clear on exactly what it is I’m doing in that conference room or what’s specifically going on (probably because I usually have more than enough other stuff to do that starts intruding on my focus).

My complaining executive didn’t know his role in the meetings, so he didn’t know to process the information we were presenting.

He needed to be leading.

Now that I understood what he needed, I realized that to get anything done we were going to have to let him do some of the driving.

Believe me, that was more than a little spooky. As I mentioned, I tend to want to lead as well. But if we were going to get him on board, we had to give up some of that control.

We let him set the pace and steer the questions, which got a little distressing at times, as we never knew when he’d take a surprise hard left on us or when he might ask something we didn’t have an answer for that he’d like. But we learned, and when he did ask those questions we weren’t quite prepared for, we’d own up to it and ask for his input. “How would you approach that?” we’d ask, and we’d incorporate whatever he told us into our next-step plans.

What I learned here was the complaints weren’t the issue—in fact, even what he was complaining about wasn’t the issue. Rather, it was his role in the process that was causing him a problem that he wasn’t able to articulate. And it was simply coming out as complaints about levels of detail.

paper cut outs of people holding hands and holding signs, rallying.
  • “United Against the Common Enemy”

This is more of an overall observation than a specific example.

I am thoroughly convinced of the existence of something I call “Common Enemy Camaraderie.” And it’s unfortunate because it’s a great way for your employees, staff, or team to come together and develop substantial fellowship and solidarity.

The problem is, it only comes about when they all rally together against a designated enemy.

When this happens, people use their outrage and its surrounding drama as a way to connect with one another. It’s a wonderful way to bond, and believe me, when they all come together to fight the good fight against some shared adversary, they can get some stuff done.

But in the workplace, is there really anyone who can become their common enemy without damaging your organization? And you know what happens once they’ve conquered their selected villain? They’ll shift focus to someone else. And I guarantee you don’t want to be at the pointy end of that!

Or, even worse, once the thing that’s united them is gone, people realize that the connection they all felt when they were shoulder-to shoulder-in the fight was only circumstantial. They find they have no true or meaningful connection with the other beyond opposing that common enemy. The letdown of that realization can be considerable.

Warnings aside, as I mentioned, it is a great way for people to come together to accomplish something. For example, as Christians we can all rally around overcoming sin. Similarly, a business—and certainly a non-profit—can rally around taking a stand against an industry injustice or shortcoming in the world to create something bigger, better, and greater.

But I’ll warn you again, when Common Enemy Camaraderie is targeted to an individual, you’re playing with fire. Sure, the flames are comforting and can keep you warm. And the fire can certainly help you do certain things. But if you don’t mind it carefully, it can burn everything down.

crossed out complain on chalk board

What to Do with Complaints

Too often, organizations have knee jerk reactions to complaints. When someone grumbles “My co-workers aren’t coming in on time or putting in appropriate hours!” management ends flextime across the organization. When a director crabs “These consultants we hired aren’t giving informative answers in our status meetings!” the executive team just cancels the initiative.

This is exactly how decisions get implemented that waste time, energy and effort—money, at the end of the day—as well as good will in the organization. And every time, these decisions are begun by trying to solve a problem that’s been identified through complaints.

It’s just that it’s usually the wrong problem.

When faced with complaints, to get to the right problem, do the following:

  1. Separate the complaint from the complainer.
  • Put the complaints in one pile and the complainers in another.
  • Do this especially when you see the complaint is coming from a Common Enemy Camaraderie group. Again, those are like fire and can burn out of control fast if you don’t stay on it.

2. Start digging in on the complainer.

  • Work to understand what’s at the heart of why the person is complaining. Typically, there’s some need a complainer has that’s not being met, and the complaint is simply his or her way of “getting it out there”—sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Remember, the complaint often doesn’t really concern what’s being complained about—there’s another issue that’s triggered this reaction in the complainer. (Remember my team member who wanted to make everything “fair”?)

3. Help the complainer see they are valued and worthy.

  • Acknowledge the complaint, and echo the complainer’s language in your discussion. This helps the complainer see that you do recognize him or her, and that you see that they do perceive an issue.
  • Shift the focus from the person the complaint is about to the problem itself. This helps redirect the complaint to create a positive change—and we all can use a little more positive change in our world!

4. Be sure to address the complaint.

  • Don’t blow it off, even of you realize it’s all about the complainer.
  • Look to the complainer to see why the complaint is significant to this person—the complaint, as seen from the complainer’s perspective, is another clue for determining the real issue.
  • This is where a good mediator or facilitator can really help a team stay on track.

5. Use structure to correct the issue (as I discussed in Solve It With Structure). For example, for my executive leader who was at a loss for what to do in our status meetings, we changed the structure of the meetings so he could have the active role he needed to process the information we were presenting.

rating from sad face to happy face, finger pointing to happy face.

Complaints are hard to hear, and they can be tricky to handle. When you’re faced with them, keep the complaint and the complainer separate, so you can better figure out what it is that’s really at issue. Work with the complainer to understand what’s happening, and why it’s bothering him or her. Then work to put structure in place not to necessarily address the complaint itself, but rather to address the underlying issue.

And more than anything else, keep this is mind: your complainers are human. Cut them some slack, and help them out with the issue. As I mentioned, we all can use a little more positive change in our world!

Check out the Drama-Free Workplace Series for more insight on employee management and how to handle conflict in the workplace.