How should a leader respond to an employee complaint? Depending on the circumstances that surround the concern or grievance, there are varying approaches on how to proceed. Below are five different responses to employees who voice concerns.
Get clear on the type of complaint that’s voiced
In this stellar HBR article, the authors describe four types of complaints: Productive, Venting, Chronic and Malicious. Here’s the important take-away: for leaders to be effective in handling an employee concern, they need to understand that people complain for different reasons. When leaders understand the source of the voiced concern, they’re in a better position to respond effectively. In nearly every type of circumstance, it’s possible that the complaint has value. Also, be cognizant of your biases– just because you aren’t concerned about the problem highlighted, doesn’t mean others feel the same.
When “only come to me with a solution” is a leadership fail
No doubt you’ve heard (or perhaps subscribe to) the notion that your team members should only come to you with a “problem” if they have some sort of a solution in mind. This is often seen as a way to counteract “needless” complaining. It’s true that a solution-oriented mindset helps combat some forms of complaint, but this approach has its downsides as well because some problems are too complex for one person to solve. Drawbacks to this mindset include people getting entrenched in their viewpoints or worse—not bothering to raise concerns at all. A better leadership approach is to encourage folks to bring “problem statements” to the table so that all can work on the issue together, which fosters collaboration and openness.
Has the venting gone off the rails?
Author and self-described “drama researcher” Cy Wakeman says that endless venting (in which the “letting off of steam” has become chronic) is a form of creating unhelpful “emotional waste.” Wakeman observes that this type of venting is wrapped up in our ego – and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s going on at work. Wakeman writes, the ego is an “unreliable narrator” of our reality, because it “delights in the drama it can create.” The leadership take-away? Don’t feed into someone’s need to create emotional waste.
Are people complaining of burnout?
As a leader, are you hearing employees complain of burnout? Using the seven types of “rest” as defined by a medical doctor, here’s an interesting take on how you can encourage employees to become rejuvenated in the workplace. Restfulness, as framed by these seven factors, helps leaders create an optimal performance environment for their employees.
When the “complaint” is actually someone who’s hurting
And finally, here’s a suggested list of words to use and words to avoid when someone is clearly distressed. It’s not exactly a “complaint” but when someone within your team (or a colleague) voices fatigue, sadness or frustration with a circumstance outside of work, your best bet is to offer compassion.
Although some amount of employee grumbling and grievance is to be expected, as a leader it’s best to equip yourself with a toolbox of productive responses to employee concerns. By employing these five approaches, leaders can navigate complaints with empathy, fostering a healthier, more productive culture.