Handling Co-Worker Complaints and Backstabbing
Here’s a question from a recent workshop participant. “How do you handle someone complaining about a co-worker?”
First, you want people to come to you. Some managers want challenges, problems, and people to go away. They hide in their offices, sneak to the elevator, or duck into the restroom to avoid facing tough conversations.
Suggestions for dealing with co-worker complaints:
- Ask the complainer, “What can you do to solve this?” Some complainers want you to solve their problem. That’s a last resort. Savior-managers create irresponsible employees.
- The complainer may say, “I don’t know what I can do.” Say, “Why don’t you come back this afternoon with some ideas?”
- Develop a strategy to deal with the issue. If you can’t, try number four.
- Invite the person being complained about to a meeting to discuss the issue. You’ll be surprised that issues have several sides.
- Focus on issues and performance rather than personalities, unless personality is the problem.
- Take small steps in positive directions, don’t expect giant leaps. Identify observable behaviors. If you can’t see it, you can’t measure it.
- Follow up. “Let’s get together in two weeks to follow up.”
- Withhold judgment.
- Never take sides.
- Clarify, is it personal or performance. It’s often personal.
- Warning, backstabbers are masters at seeming helpful while being destructive.
Bonus tip: When you bring the two parties together and one of them had no idea there was a problem, you’re dealing with a backstabber. Excuse the one who’s in the dark and deal with the real issue.
Deal with interpersonal tensions
because relationships are worth it.
Read what Facebook contributors added: Leadership Freak Coffee Shop
Note: I’m out of town and can’t check references. I have a feeling I’ve read the first three suggestions but can’t recall the author.
How do you handle complaints about co-workers?
Love the post, Dan! Especially like the bonus tip. It happens more often in the workplace than people know.
What I’ve seen is people fear backstabbers so they get away with their dirty work.
Good post, Dan. I think you have hit the nail on the head with the first two points. “What can you, the complainer, do to resolve this?” and “Is this personal or performance?” By placing the ball back in their court they will either feel empowered, defeated, or decide that its not that big a deal after all.
We also need to be very careful in withholding our judgement about things that we are not witnesses or a party to. As managers and leaders we have to sort out what may be the truth of the occurence or offense, what its impact is on business and the rest of the staff, and what is the motivation in the complaint.
Thanks for adding your insights. I’m thankful you consistently add value.
Your comment made me think about the gentleness and firmness required to do this well.
I’ve seen some managers coddle complainers and try to solve their problems. By doing so they take sides. It’s pathetic.
Oh my!! How applicable for today…did you read this?? (I now subscribe to this!)
Thank you Barbara
Your warning about backstabbers being seemingly “helpful” is a good one. Use extra caution if you are by nature a trusting person. How sad to have to recommend this, but it’s a fact of life.
Yes indeed Jennifer! so glad you stopped by today.
Dealing with it directly, leaning into it, can nip in the bud the tendency for some to be chronic ‘plainers sans solutions. (I might swipe the LEAP acronym from Xavier Amador for this…)
1) Listen with all your senses, Consider the source, Trust but verify, and Dan, yours of Personal v.Performance, is key.
2) Empathize (to a degree, not about specific, non-present individuals, but about the frustration, complaint, etc) Ask what has been attempted-the verb tense is important. If nothing, Dan’s #2 & 3 apply.
3) Agree, find some things to agree on (again not about specific, non-present individuals) that will be attempted–future tense. Framing past and future does get people looking for perspectives and hopefully looking ahead rather than wallowing in past injustices.
4) Partner, see if the ‘plainer is willing to commit and if so, is there something you can commit to as well. Having done the first three parts, you are now in this together, and being in it together creates common bonds.
At any rate as a manager/leader, you do need to follow up in some capacity. It may be to curtail the ‘plainer or engage the ‘plainee. Either way, shining a light on it shows a level of openness and transparency. How you handle each interaction is a brush stroke of the big picture.
Thanks for another insightful comment. I’ll quickly jump on the idea of acting quickly.
I’ve tried the more passive approach and have concluded that proactive is almost always better. Of course acting quickly doesn’t mean solving something for someone…but often means pointing out that you see a problem and encouraging others to find solutions.
this is the part of management I hated most, people coming to you with problems that foment because they won’t talk to each other.
these are usually communication issues at the deepest level
Thanks Bill…perhaps training helps but leaders who model good communication are more important…
I admit having children made me a better leader.
Parenting is a deep dose of reality!
and patience helps too
Complainers are a disease to an organization. Complainers are little kids trapped in adults bodies. They avoid taking responsibility for their behavior, actions and consequences. Normally they are the ones causing whatever they complain about but unable to see it. Is it just me or is this becoming more common? how can a complainer be identified in an intervew process?
My experience is that you can mold this early on making it clear that as adult professionals we can all solve our own issues we may have with others, if you can’t, don’t expect higher responsibility.
My answer: What are YOU going to do about it? If it is affecting you or the organization take 100% responsibility and do something about it otherwise carry on!
Hi Eduardo, I believe you have some good points. What I’ve found is that you can tell if the complainer is desiring attention versus identifying problems by how much drama they have in their life overall.
I would like to ask, in your experience, how have you been able to help those with the “sky-is-falling” mentality? I assume that much of this type of behavior is from those that aren’t managers since the largest population in most organizations are the subordinate staff members.
On the flip side, what would you suggest for subordinates to do when they are trying to shed light upon situations (hard to get along with co-workers or managers, inefficient systems, out-dated procedures, etc) but the number of “brave ones” is low within the number of those who say nothing (for whatever reason)? Many times I’ve seen this small group of individuals get labeled as “boat rockers” and are pretty much dismissed literally and figuratively.
Thank you for sharing your perspective! Christina
I guess it all boils down to the culture the organization has. When it is positive and open, you normally have a group of people that are responsible for their actions and bring problems with solutions, they feel part of the solution because they feel part of a team. On the flip side, a closed and negative culture people avoid taking responsibility and always have something or someone to blame, taking things personal and lack of accountability is most common. When new associates enter to any of the two, they will eventually “adjust” to the way things work. I guess the root of the problem is the type of culture you create which really translates to the type of leaders you have, they are the ones responsible to create the culture. The culture is very much like their mirror. An like most things, taking no action, is the worst action that is taken.
Mostly I refer to professional/work problems, as far as personal problems like “they can’t get along with others” my message is clear, either you learn to work with others or you find some other thing to do. Mostly these people leave on their own as they always think that they are right and everyone is wrong…which takes us back to the “sky-is-falling” type!! Thank you for your input!
I like it Eduardo! Thanks for expanding. Yes, I do believe that the “type” of leadership makes or breaks the environment and new a new associates will “follow” their examples. I like your statement “I guess the root of the problem is the type of culture you create which really translates to the type of leaders you have, they are the ones responsible to create the culture. The culture is very much like their mirror.” So very true. Thanks again! Christina
Hey Dan, great post! One thing that I would add before even going through these steps is to ask each person, “What part of this is yours? What do you take responsibility for?”
Everyone has a stake in the issue, and it can often be easier to identify possible solutions to the issue if they know their participation in the issue!
Great addition Jason…everyone can acknowledge their part…there might be disagreement on who is responsible for what but getting that conversation going can’t hurt. Best
Great post, Dan. I love how you capture this issue in your usual succinct way. To your great ideas I would add the following:
1. Coach the complainer about how to address the issue. Some people have minimal skills in this area and need support in learning how to handle this.
2. Be transparent with your team. Let them know how you will handle these issues and what you value about direct communication.
3. Teach everyone how to have an effective confrontation conversation that enriches relationships.
Thanks for sharing your ideas on this topic!
Thank you Jamie. You made this conversation richer…I especially enjoy #2…be transparent with how you are going to handle these issues… bingo!
I appreciate this post. For me, I put the oness back on the complainer. “Have you talked to XX about this issue?” “No? Why not?” “Would you like me to initiate the conversation?”. Of course, each situation is unique and this approach might not be the solution to the problem, but it has caught a few by surprise and the complaining ceased. Was it dealt with? Probably not. That indicates to me that the issue probably was alot smaller than the complaint sounded, even to the complainer. Cheers!
I’ll add the suggestion made above…teach people how to have these conversations… thank you terilmnop
Dan, you made a great point about backstabbers. What would be good ways to deal with a backstabber as a manager and as a co-worker? Thanks! Christina
Hello Christina! it’s me again…I am not Dan… or even close, but I will throw my two cents…
In Mexico we have a saying that goes something like, “scum will eventually float”, this means that these type of people eventually pay for their actions.
Again, if you are the leader, you have control over these type of behaviors and make them not acceptable, you can guide teams in the right direction, if you lead by example, people will follow your actions.
If you are the co-worker and this type of behavior is acceptable in the organization (meaning leaders also do it) than you have two choices…have faith in your work and contributions while you strengthen your character or for the good of your health, simply bail out …If the behavior is not compatible in your organization (maybe the person is new) you will need to confront the backstabber in a positive way and eventually it will stop or he/she will bail out…scum enjoy to float with other scum!
Great question Christina.
I’m convinced backstabbing is propagated by weak leadership. Solving it begins at the top. It never fully goes away but transparent leaders who hit these issues head on helps.
One high level leader I know called everyone involved in an incident into his office, one at a time. He simply said, this is going to stop. Any questions?
If you aren’t the leader, keep accurate records of the things you are accomplishing, who you are helping, and who is helping you.
Avoid attacking a backstabber unless you have full support of leadership.
Build mentoring relationships outside your department but within your organization as a whole. Seek advice without making others look bad.
If it’s been going on a long time, don’t expect it to change unless leadership changes. Can you move sideways in the organization?
Above all, do a great job. Over deliver. Don’t let your frustration cause you to engage in self-defeating behaviors.
To get some notoriety for yourself, you might try joining your organizations social activities. Become part of a team that’s engaged in community service. This gets you know outside your department.
You have my best wishes,
Great topic Dan, and I have had to deal with this a few times. I think asking the party who is complaining to you to come up with ways that might resolve this issue works very well. It causes the to think through the issue and reflect. Possibly it is not as bad as they made it up to be, or if it is they will at least be willing to try to resolve it.
Thanks Tina, I get real uncomfortable when someone comes to me looking for a solution to their issue. Of course we all can help others find resolution but in the end, personal responsibility takes everyone further.
Very true… Have a great Saturday
What would you do if your boss says people have lodged complaints about you, but won’t tell you who, or specific instances of behavior that was allegedly unpalatable?
Can you focus on correcting the behaviors and forgetting the other stuff? I know it’s hard but maybe letting it go will work for you.
Reblogged this on HEART and commented:
This is fantastic advice! I specifically like no.2 & 4 on the list of suggestions.
To withhold judgment..I think THAT is very important.
I wanted to go so many ways with this! I actually went back to my post from Friday but it is a bit vague, so trying to stay on topic:
This is not just a problem in business but other organizations as well. My experience with causes is fear and some people love stirring up drama, I think “Bob” has fear.
I belong to a networking organization and one Chapter is my main group. Last week I visited another Chapter. I rubbed someone (“Bob”) in that other group the wrong way (fear) and he went to the leader (“John”) of his group (equivelent of the manager above).
“John” never called or asked me why I did the action that rubbed “Bob” the wrong way.
It ended up in a few emails and “Bob” lost credibility with some of his Chapter members and many members of that Chapter are not willing to talk to “Bob” or me. (I am not sure but if you are not willing to deal with people in your own group…it just might be hard to give referrals and everyone suffers)
In so doing “John” blew his credibility with me (his actions or lack there of). I had given “John” a warm referral (president of a company he had been trying to get in with).
I have been wrestling with call the referral and tell him I do not trust how “John” does business. I know “John’s” company and its integrity is solid. It is not an issue of disagreeing with “John’s” decision, it is in how he arrived at it, the process. He did not use any of the 12 suggestions above. He listened to one side and did not consider any of the facts.
And his process is a reflection on me and there fore my reputation and integrity. Reading over the comments above has confirmed my decision.
Now I just have to admit I gave someone more credit than they were due.
Thank you, Dave
My coworker in a small office has complained of me being bossy. Without my guidance she will not complete her duties. I was unaware of any issues. She felt the need to go over my head and over my supervisor’s head to to complain that i am not her boss and the issue was passed back down to me with instruction to not tell her what to do but to go to my supervisor with any problems with her not doing her job. Now, I feel like I cannot do or say anything. Even though I am expected to train her and cross train her on my responsibilities. ? Please advise.
Thanks for your comment and question, Krysta. I don’t know enough to offer real advice. Don’t like to anyway. I’m more of a conversation guy. Having said that, I suggest you believe that you are perceived as bossy and ask your critics to explain further and suggest specific behaviors to remedy the situation. Come up with some of your own as well. That’s not the solution but one way to approach situations like this. Realize that if people have already gone over your head, they probably aren’t comfortable talking to you. That could be about them, you, or both.
If they are already talking about you, you might us well bring the topic up.
One warning. Don’t talk about the past. Focus on how you want to relate to others in the future. The past can’t be fixed, modified, or improved. Accept it and move forward. Those long conversations about the past my help us vent but I’m not convinced the offer much guidance about the future. At best, they explain what not to do.
Speaking of “what not to do.” Sometimes stopping things is enough to make a big difference. There may be one or two negative behaviors that, if you stopped, things would drastically improve.
Well, just some thoughts. You have my best
How to write an explanation letter when I corral with my colleague because of my colleague careless in work and missing invoice and when I want close system for account purposes very end of months.my colleague not cooperating with me,this end up with corral.
Please help with this letter.
Hello. I just had a coworker complain about me to their manager. Then, their manager contacted MY manager. Anyway, it was regarding a telephone conversation. I was upset about a computer issue. The computer person, who I was talking with, decided my “tone” was directed at him and hung up on me. I had no idea he took this to his boss to take to my boss. So, in MY performance evaluation, this came up. All he had to do was give me a call or whatever. I find that getting managers involved ALWAYS creates a bigger issue that there really is. Also, my computer issue was resolved, so, this did not negatively affect the work. I was shocked, to say the least. I send him a really nice email saying that i was sorry for any misunderstanding. I still don’t really know why he made such a big deal about it. But, I think he complained about me, first, because he thought I was going to complain about him. In fact, I know that is the reason.
not every person who complains. An be labeled a “complainer”. I made the mistake of sharing a job opening on my department with an acquaintance. She got hired an now uses this familiarity to share her most negative feelings about every customer, contractor, process, procedure interaction she has throughout the day…every day. When I’ve tried to steer her back, she become belligerent and superior. After two years of this I’m at my wits end and yes, I complained. Seems she was never corrected as this was assumed to be our regular relationship tenor. Sometimes the issue IS the defendant.
Reserve judgement. Listen and make independent observations to gain a broader understanding.
Suzanne, you are so right. Just because you bring attention to something does not make you a complainer. I sit beside a loud mouth who stays on the phone with her personal issues and lives on the internet. Her job is a month behind and the manager makes jokes about it. And I found out she makes the same as me. Comes and goes as she pleases. And of course her man in the office is friends with the manager. I do not complain because it is a waste of time. Not what you know or how you do your job, it is who you know and who you are in bed with.