Complaints: Sometimes they’re valid. Sometimes they’re drama. And sometimes they’re toxic.
If you leave it to leadership to deal with complaints, you’re missing the big picture. Most employees complain to co-workers and never raise their concerns to leaders. Those complaints can fester and create a toxic workplace before you know it.
How you handle complaints as an employee plays a role in creating (or destroying) a great culture, and it says a lot about your leadership skills.
As co-workers, we tend to take one of two approaches when our colleagues complain. We either listen actively to try to understand the complaint. Or we quietly distance ourselves from the complainer(s). But either of those approaches can lead to a toxic workplace.
In our work helping to create better customer and employee engagement through digital workplace tools, we help to guide organizations through significant change. And change always results in some complaints. So we’ve had a birds eye view of how healthy and unhealthy workplaces deal with complaints. Here’s what we’ve learned about how the best employees deal with complaints from co-workers.
Start by Listening
Listen. Sounds simple enough. But listening doesn’t mean participating. It simply means letting the complainer have a voice. Let them articulate their complaint without agreeing or disagreeing.
The best listeners know how to give others a voice without either putting them on the defensive, or giving more energy to the complaint.
Try to Understand
After initially listening, leaders don’t assume they fully understand the problem. Push a little deeper with questions of your own. Why does the complainer feel this way? Is it part of their personal history that they’re reacting to? Will the problem cause issues for the individual in terms of job security or performance? Is it a communication or training issue that just needs to be cleared up? Is it an issue that may cause issues for the whole company? Or … is it not really an issue at all?
The basis for understanding is firstly to determine if the complaint is valid or not, and secondly to determine if there is a solution to the complaint.
Many people stop here. Their colleagues often say things like, “I really like talking to that person, they’re such a good listener.” Having that trust is great – but stopping here can turn a healthy environment into one of constant complaining.
Connect and Communicate
This step is simple, but can be uncomfortable. That’s why so many people never take it.
You need to decide on the nature of the complaint: is it a real issue, or is it something that is really a problem with the complainer?
If this is a real issue, then you and the complainer should think through what a reasonable solution might look like, and then partner to present that to the appropriate individuals in leadership. Help to not only identify the problem, but to present a solution that is good for the company and good for the individual.
If it’s not an issue, then you shouldn’t remain silent. Now is the time when you gently push back on the complainer. This may be expressed in a variety of ways, such as:
- Helping them to understand the reasons why a new way of doing this is important.
- Letting them know that the issue they believe is occurring is not something others are experiencing.
- Encouraging them to give the situation, or a specific person, the benefit of the doubt until there is more evidence of a real issue.
- Being an example to show that you’re engaging with the process, person, system, change, or whatever else the issue might be about.
Pushing back lets the complainer know that you respectfully disagree with their perspective on the problem. Remaining silent can send the message that you agree with them (even if that isn’t true). Even if the complainer doesn’t agree with you, it may mean they spend less time complaining to you and to others – reducing the negative energy that they’re bringing to the workplace.
Know the Results
The above process works well when you’re engaging in a new company, on new projects, or with new people. Over time, you need to refine it based on what you have learned. You may find:
- Some things work better with some people than others. Constantly refine how you listen, understand, and connect. Part of this is emotional intelligence (making general improvements to how you engage with everyone), and part of it is specific to individuals (improving how you engage with a specific person by observing what they do and do not respond well to).
- Some people are toxic complainers. They react poorly, or not at all, to push-back. You may find that you need to establish boundaries to keep from being too influenced by these individuals. You may even find that you need to help your manager guide them out of the organization.
- Some leaders are toxic. They create an unsafe environment for bringing up problems with solutions. You may find you need to work around these leaders, or accept issues that can’t be changed. I’ve worked with some individuals in toxic cultures who have made it their mission to do their best to make it a good place to work (these heroes, in the end, are the real leaders).
Listen, Understand, Connect and Know. If you put those 4 habits into practice, you’re on the road to being “Powered by LUCK,” and you’re leading your organization into a better culture.
Want to have a great place to work? It starts with you!