7 Responses to Employee Complaints
If you aren’t hearing complaints from employees:
- People are lying.
- Culture is broken.
- Fear blocks honesty.
- Things are worse than you think.
Tension bubbles under the surface until it erupts, for leaders who aren’t hearing complaints.
7 responses to employee complaints:
- Say, “Thank you for saying that.”
- Apologize even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Let people know their feelings matter.
- I’m sorry this went badly for you.
- I’m sorry this is so upsetting.
- I’m sorry things didn’t go as you hoped or expected.
- I’m sorry you were disappointed.
- Avoid offering quick explanations, justifications, or solutions. Don’t say:
- That’s because…
- You need to understand…
- We’re doing our best…
- You should…
- Always ask questions first. Use a complaint as a mental trigger to ask questions.
- Curiosity expresses compassion. Statements express authority.
- Bite your tongue. If you can’t think of a question, just say, “Tell me more.”
- Relax. Breathe. Slow down. You want to get away from a complainer. Lean in, instead.
- Use questions to get to the heart of the matter.
- Turn to the future and define the win. You can’t change the past. Here’s how one supervisor turned to the future. Some employees complained that they didn’t feel supported. She asked, “What does support look like to you?”
- What does it look like when things are going well?
- What could be done – next time – to make things better?
- Who needs to be part of this conversation?
- What can you do to make things better, next time?
- How may I help?
- Identify one key behavior that needs to happen next time. Don’t try to solve everything. Just solve something.
- Keep every promise you make.
Bonus: Set a follow up meeting, when appropriate.
Complainers care about something. Be thankful they care.
What are some useful responses to employee complaints?
All of the responses you provided here are very useful Dan.
The only point that I would add has to do with reflecting on what we are reacting to when employees complain. That is, when we become defensive, we are undoubtedly defending something important to us (like a value, need or aspect of our identity). It would therefore, help to find ways to acknowledge why we are reacting and step back (like you suggest in point 4) and not make the complaint about us but rather something that is important to the staff member.
Thanks Cinnie. Your addition is much appreciated. I know my responses to complaints can reflect my need to know the answer and the need to be right. Neither is very helpful.
Hi Cinnie: I think you bring up a great point and make an important distinction in your mention of how we must be cognizant our responses can be “defending” or “defensiveness.”
On the one hand, it can be important to defend our values or the protocols of the organization. On the other hand, we must take care not to be defensive in believing our knowledge contain the whole truth or the only truth, or that we are not arguing for our limitations—for sure enough…they’re ours!
I inadvertently met this wonderful (and I believe brilliant) 89-year old, retired neuroscience professor who told me about his take on leadership, knowledge, wisdom, and how he believed “entitled old leaders despised the entitlement of the youth.” He was quite charming in his idiosyncratic eccentricity.
First he said leadership is simply the ability to lift and inspire. He believed defensiveness and knowledge are proud that they know so much; defense and wisdom are humble that they know no more. But then he went on to caution that the person either questioning or telling you what to do is telling you to be more like them—which why the other person “defends” or becomes “defensive.” Otherwise, he said, from a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.
Excellent advise for customer complaints as well. Of course our employees should always be treated as our customer. They’re our most important customer but I wonder why so many of us tend to miss that reality?
Thanks Calvin. Perhaps we should adopt language like, “We always treat people with respect,” and stop segregating people into customer/employee buckets.
Quite straightforward as you so nopicely expressed it: Complaints are an indication of employee comfort with the leadership. For optimum resolution, leaders need to acknowledge the issues involved AND seek engagement of the one who came forward particularly but probably not solely!
Thanks John. You put it very nicely, complaints indicate the relationship employees have with leadership. Thanks for adding the idea of engaging multiple people in finding solutions.
Dan, one of the things I struggle with around this is that most of the time I have absolutely nothing I can offer to the complainer beyond sympathy, and most of the time that doesn’t help!
Thanks Mitch. Wanting to help but not being able to is frustrating. Some people feel better if they feel heard, even if things can’t change. But, as you indicate, it doesn’t always help.
Perhaps those situations fit into that part of our jobs that we don’t really like but have to do anyway???
I need to write a post on what to do when things aren’t going to change…. 🙂
Dan, unfortunately I think you’re right. I read quite a lot of blogs and sites on leadership. A characteristic of many of them is that they concentrate on “first word problems” – you’re a senior manager/leader/VP and want to be able to get out there with more innovative presentations to your industry peers/professional society.
I’m there trying to help out some guy who is worrying about being hauled over the coals for finding time to read around his job.
If you can help the former, great – but there’s plenty of people out there in that game.If you can help people in the latter position – then you’re helping vastly more people to achieve vastly more and rise vastly higher. I’ll look out for that post!
Dan, Big Gracias for the post.
In a class I give to supervisors I inform them when confronting workers, confront with care, candor, and respect. These are great additions to educate our supervisors on dealing with complaints rather than than getting frustrated and avoiding them.
I would contend that honesty is often hard for organizations to deal with. Many times it is because they don’t know how to deal with the honesty or they rather not exert the energy. Organizations need to understand that it is okay to not have all the answers and to involve their people in the solution.
I agree with Cinnie Noble.
Yes, thank you, Dan, this blog post is very useful.