Why a Complaining Employee Can Actually be a Good Thing

September 30, 2016

One of Lisa Earle McLeod’s first jobs was working at a health club in college, 25 years ago. One day, she saw an advertisement in the school newspaper advertising the health club that she didn’t think portrayed it in the right image.

Motivated, she marched into work clutching the ad and told her boss she thought the ad was terrible. Unfortunately, she did it in front of two clients. In response, her boss called her into his office and told her to never say anything negative in front of clients ever again.

After that, McLeod didn’t ever complain to her boss again. But, she also never cared about her job as much again, either.

Looking back, it was a mistake for McLeod to criticize the ad in front of clients. But it was also a mistake for her boss to condemn the criticism completely, and ruin her enthusiasm for the job. Ideally, he should have handled the complaint better, by informing her delivery of the criticism was wrong, but also considering the criticism itself.

The bigger point? An employee who complains is not necessarily a bad employee. Often, they are passionate and care about the organization. Instead, they are simply lacking communication skills.

Hence, an employee complaint can quickly become a teaching moment for both the employee and the boss. The boss should listen to the complaint, but also ensure the employee is communicating it in a way that’s effective.

How bosses should handle a complaint from an employee

In her LinkedIn Learning class on hiring, retaining and growing top millennial talent, McLeod detailed exactly how to reframe an employee criticism – or “whining” – into a productive conversation. In her class, she said there are three steps to making that a reality.

  • Determine if the complaint is legitimate

Not every complaint an employee makes is legitimate. Sometimes, it’s just the reality of the job. That said, as a manager, you shouldn’t brush off every complaint as illegitimate.

So how do you distinguish between the two?

It comes down to asking questions. Say, for example, a customer service employee complains they are getting way too many calls.

The initial reaction might be to brush that off as a person complaining about having to do their job. But, a better approach is to ask follow-up questions – what are these calls about? Is there a way to cut down on the amount of calls by doing something different?

These follow-up questions help both you and the employee determine if their complaint is legitimate and something that should be solved, or if it is truly just a complaint.

  • Determine the depth of impact of the complaint, if it is legitimate.

If you determine that the complaint is legitimate, it’s time to figure out how much impact it’s having on the business. Is it something that’s costing the company money and needs to be addressed right away, or is it something that can be fixed later?

The manager alone shouldn’t be asking and answering the question. Involve the employee as well, as you turn their complaint into a truly productive conversation.

  • Demonstrate positive intent when hearing the complaint.

If you brush off every complaint, you are going to stop hearing complaints. That’s good, right?

Not really. All that means is that people are keeping their criticisms to themselves, which means they are likely less happy and their wisdom isn’t being leveraged to improve you and your company.

Instead, how you respond to complaints will directly affect your culture, McLeod said. So, if you listen to complaints and respond when they are legitimate, your culture will be one of inclusion, where the best idea – instead of the highest rank – wins out.

This will also cause people to be more thoughtful with their complaints, once you’ve proven you will thoughtfully consider them. Instead of people just whining, they’ll be much more strategic in when and how they voice a concern.

Tying it all together

Not everything at your organization works perfectly. Not all of your employees are happy with every part of their job.

And that causes complaints.

As a leader, you can bury your head in the sand and attack anyone who makes a complaint. That will create a culture where your people will still complain, although they’ll do it behind your back, and none of their concerns will ever be addressed.

A better option, ironically enough, is to invite complaints. It’s far better to detail with employee concerns head on, as opposed to have them linger beneath the surface. Not only will that make for a happier workforce, it’ll make for a better company.

*Image by mikeyskatie, Flickr

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