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Mining the Gold of Employee Complaints

Complaints abound in most organizations today.

March 1, 2007
Related Topics: Strategy and Management

Complaints abound in most organizations today. There’s too much work to get done by too few people, and with the pace of business only increasing, it’s no surprise people feel as if they are drowning. Dramatic downsizings and the attendant flattened organizational structures haven’t helped matters.

A serious absence of trust in management, coupled with a sense of powerlessness, has driven many employee complaints underground, where they wreak havoc with morale and productivity. It’s one of the most compelling workplace challenges managers face today, and they must deal with it or accept the sobering reality they are sacrificing the productivity that is key to their organizations’ sustainable success.

Ignorance is Bliss, or is It?

It’s easy to ignore complaints. After all, every manager’s day is filled with demands that range from trivial to critical. The result? Firefighting has become the default mode. It’s also easy for a manager to minimize the importance of the complaints that do surface, going on the often-misguided assumption that the complaints are representative of only a minority of employees.

The truth is the complaints that surface are like the tip of an iceberg — the full scope of the issues lies beneath the surface. When managers are brutally honest with themselves, they often find they must reckon with their own sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in dealing with strong emotion, not to mention the implicit suggestion their leadership might need work. It takes both courage and tenacity to reach into the realm of employee complaints.

The Seduction of Dependency

Intrepid managers, armed with great intentions to be responsive and responsible leaders who reach out to gather employee complaints, might find themselves trapped by the seduction of dependency. Managers feel compelled to respond, and employees happily dump all their complaints on the managers, hoping they will solve for them. Managers feel proud to have doused yet another fire, and employees feel as if someone has listened to and taken care of them.

On the surface, this sounds plausible enough. Indeed, there are circumstances in which employee complaints are best placed squarely in the hands of the manager. The problem is the seduction of dependency forever traps managers in the position of being overly responsible for employees and employees in depending on managers to solve every problem. The consequence is both managers and employees have a built-in safety net. This safety net creates an organizational culture that might produce but doesn’t innovate. Employees sulk and submit, but they don’t really commit, and they don’t make the distinctive contributions that translate into more satisfied customers and increased market share.

On a personal level, when employees carry around angst in the form of festering complaints, it extracts a huge price in personal energy — the very energy that could otherwise be directed in more constructive and creative ways. The impact on the organization is profound when one considers the opportunities that are lost because employees aren’t fully engaged and because managers dig in the weeds and constantly put out fires at the expense of focusing on the strategic thinking and actions that build long-term viability for the organization.

Mining for Gold

Few managers’ initial inclination is to view complaints as a gold mine of great ideas. Yet, most can tell the story of cynical employees who turned around with the help of a supportive and encouraging leader who reconnected them with their desire to contribute. If managers can reframe employee complaints from being dreaded and avoided to being a source of creative tension and the basis of distinctive contribution, they will realize that mining the gold in employee complaints engages employees in a process that transforms their complaints into commitment. So, how do you mine for the gold in employee complaints?

Seek Employee Complaints. That’s right. The first step is to actively seek out the very complaints that trapped your employees and you in the seduction of dependency. What you do with those complaints, however, will determine whether progress occurs.

Listen Without Reacting. It’s so easy to get caught up in your own emotional reactions when receiving employee complaints. You are human, after all, and a long history of employee satisfaction surveys might have convinced you of the need to manage your image. The reality is there is almost always a gap between employees’ perceptions of you as a leader and your self-perceptions.

And while the truth of your leadership effectiveness usually falls somewhere between the extremes, it’s important to recognize your primary goal isn’t to rescue your image with your employees. Many managers have been derailed by focusing on improving their image at the expense of dealing with the issues. Moreover, your aim isn’t to defend, criticize or default into a knee-jerk fix-it mode.

Draw Out What Employees Care About. While a complaint generally crystallizes what an employee doesn’t like or want, it fails to convey what’s really important to an individual. The truth is, behind every complaint is an unfulfilled aspiration, a neglected commitment or a compromised value.

By way of example, consider a hypothetical personal circumstance for a moment. Imagine you have a complaint about your boss. Your outward complaint is that he doesn’t listen. But dig further and consider what you might deeply care about that is not being honored, that is, the real basis of your complaint. Outwardly, your complaint is not listening. What might be behind the complaint, however, is your strongly held commitment to making a difference in the organization — perhaps to influence the organization’s strategic direction and its long-term success in an emerging market. When you perceive your boss to be someone who just doesn’t listen, it’s easy to conclude that your highest aims and intentions have been thwarted.

By focusing your complaints on your boss, you externalize your concerns and in your now passive but dissatisfied position, you are less likely to communicate or take action on them. Said slightly differently, when you nurture an expectation that someone else is responsible for your circumstances, you cease to be responsible. Instead, you passively and unhappily wait it out. You wish your boss would change. You hope for a reorganization that will bring different leadership. Perhaps you complain behind the scenes to your peers. Guess what? That’s what your employees do too — until you draw out what they care about and connect that to a personal commitment to the organization’s success.

Appreciate What’s Appreciated. While it’s easy to move into defending, criticizing or fixing something that people assert is wrong, it’s actually a whole lot easier (if less obvious) to appreciate what others care about. You don’t have to agree with every complaint you hear, but you can appreciate, in earnest, the values, the commitments or the aspirations others express. For example, it’s far easier to fully appreciate an employee’s commitment to a clean work environment than to buy in to the complaint that the maintenance department isn’t doing its job.

Appreciating what others appreciate can be powerful because the process releases you and your employees from the trap of dependency and shifts the focus from what’s wrong in the present to what’s exciting about the future you want to co-create.

Shift Perspectives. Now, the real work of transforming employee complaints into commitment begins. Sitting alongside the vast majority of complaints that render people powerless and dependant is a plethora of limiting assumptions. You could think of them as the assumptions that have a grip on people rather than the assumptions people hold. This is because assumptions that go unchallenged become ingrained beliefs. When ingrained beliefs dominate the landscape, there’s little vision for how one could move in any direction other than the one defined by the beliefs.

For instance, if I believe I can’t quit smoking because doing so will cause me to gain weight or endure out-of-control anxiety, I am held by my limiting assumptions, and I continue to smoke. I do this even though I strongly value having a healthy lifestyle, and I eat healthy food and exercise regularly in honor of this value. This is, of course, self-defeating thinking, but it’s precisely how limiting assumptions can blind people to possibilities and cause them to sabotage their personal values. It happens every day. It’s why people persist in jobs that are unsatisfying or fail to realize their full potential in their careers.

To shift employees’ perspectives, you must ask the questions that loosen the grip ingrained beliefs have on them. Let’s return to our earlier hypothetical scenario in which you have a complaint that your boss doesn’t listen.

Consider the assumptions behind your complaint that might be blinding you to other possibilities. Perhaps you believe your ideas don’t have the merit that others’ ideas do or your boss doesn’t trust you. Consider how these assumptions might be defining and blinding you. What might you not be fully appreciating about your circumstances that would enable you to have a different perspective? What possibilities could you see for taking personal responsibility, if you allowed yourself to reframe your assumptions? What brilliant ideas could you pursue in earnest and present to a boss who is now not only paying attention but is intrigued and inspired?

Connect Passion to Action. When you foster a shift in your employees’ perspectives that releases their creative energy, you are in the enviable position of being able to channel it in an infinite number of productive directions. And this is where you really shine as a leader because it is in these circumstances that you are truly in the driver’s seat of harnessing the creative contribution of your employees. There are many ways you can do this, including the following:

• Place employees in tailored stretch assignments that develop new skills and expand people’s roles to broaden their reach and give them greater visibility.
• Authorize and empower people to exercise their personal discretion and independent action. You do this by coaching versus directing employees and resisting your own tendencies to step in and help too much.
• Shift the landscape of the players. By increasing the diversity of perspectives, employees naturally will be more likely to examine their assumptions and consider new possibilities without your prodding.
• Foster a climate of psychological safety that welcomes mistakes as part of the learning that results from strategy-making in real time.

Be a partner in progress. Get out of the way, remove obstacles, provide tools and resources and use your strategic influencing skills to ensure the work of your organization is aligned with enterprise strategy.

Finally, be the kind of leader who envisions success and passionately communicates that vision. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be part of a winning team. When people are winning, that’s where their energy is, and that means there’s less energy used up in complaining.

No one said mining the gold in employee complaints is easy. If it were, complaints wouldn’t abound in so many places, productivity would soar and no one would ever worry about from where the next, big, creative ideas will come. Mining the gold is time-consuming and, at times, gut-wrenching. But consider the very real possibility that connecting employee passion to action is where steady-state performance makes way for innovative leaps.

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