The 4 Hidden Agendas Concealed in Complaints
The “make it go away” fairy doesn’t exist. Ignored complaints fester.
Uncover the real dissatisfaction before solving complaints.
The 4 hidden agendas concealed in complaints:
- “You should have ….” You caused the problem because you dropped the ball.
- “What are you going to do about this?” Whiners want – no expect – you to make it better.
- “I’m not happy.” Chronic complainers don’t own the real issue. They want something for themselves.
- “I want to look good while I talk bad.” Complainers use compassion as camouflage. They’re complaining because they “care”.
Establish the intent of complaint conversations:
- What outcome would you like from this conversation? Don’t have conversations when intentions are undeclared, obscure, or unknown. If they don’t know what they want, have them come back when they do.
- Are you looking for a solution or time to vent? (Ask this when you know and trust each other.) Some issues are solved with an ear.
Second venting sessions are complaints. It’s time to design solutions.
Explore the hidden agenda:
#1. If we could go back…
- What should have happened to prevent this problem?
- What could you have done to prevent this problem?
- What could I have done to prevent this problem?
#2. What would you like me to do about this? Asking doesn’t mean you’re going to do it. It’s the beginning of a conversation about real solutions.
An alternative: What would you like me to do for you?
#3. What needs to happen for you to feel good, when our conversation is over in twenty minutes?
#4. If you don’t mind me asking, “What makes you care about this?” Explore assumptions and values.
Nagging issues intensify with time.
What hidden agendas might complainers have?
How might leaders deal with underlying issues?
When I read this about half of it struck me right between the eyes with the name of a Co-worker who just left. I have a lot of respect for him but he could be considered a chronic complainer. I have to establish though a character feature about him for you to understand my later question. He was always finding or creating solutions even if the problem didn’t start with him. He would spend hours of his time designing good solutions to problems that might effect things down the line even if his solutions meant he had to change and do more work. He fits as a chronic complainer but that is mostly just because he is trying to so hard to provide solutions and the owner of the company just wants to here “yes” some times. I fear that the owner regarded him as a chronic complainer and tuned him out. My co-worker almost always answered the 1,2,3 and 4 of your exploring the hidden issue when explaining the problem but it did’t seem to help because of the frequency.
My question for anyone willing to advise me(sorry for the long intro) is: What could he have done to prevent attempt to fix issues from being tuned out as “chronic complaints” and what can I do in the future to differentiate attempted problem solving from complaining(aside from upfront answering the 1,2,3 and 4 of the explore the hidden agenda section)?
Thanks Matthew. I hope you receive feedback from readers. It’s an interesting situation.
My gut reaction is this person should focus on their own job. But, you seem to indicate they work hard.
What issues did this cause?
With this person in mind, what would it look like if things were going perfectly?
This is a fascinating scenario… it sounds like a conflict of styles. I’ve always put value on those who could “see ahead” believing it helped me manage a more informed course, but I’ve known others who felt exasperated by this saying”and what does that have to do with today/tomorrow?” A owner/manager can feel a lot of immediate pressure from the near term bottom line, like driving on an unfamiliar interstate with the fuel needle too close to F. Style often makes a difference and can cause conflict.
… As leader/managers we can find ourselves in a role that feels more like a referee, you have to decide if that’s where your talents are, if you have the “respect capital” and if you can play a constructive role!
If people come to you and complain, generally, they have a problem.
If people are coming to you and complaining about the same thing over and over, think hard about whether YOU have a problem.
Thanks Mitch. What an interesting comment. You got me thinking. I was thinking just the opposite. Thanks for jumping in.
SOME people are simply driven to make things better, to improve things. Maybe some of that comes from the intrinsic rewards of identifying solutions to workplace problems and some of it from the cognitive dissonance associated with seeing a gap between what IS and what COULD BE.
OBJECTIVELY identifying the issues and opportunities, and generating peer support for what should and should not be addressed is helpful for generating a more supportive innovative culture. Sometimes, workers just have “pet peeves” and seeing that no one else on the team sees that same issue tends to make that pet peeve simply disappear or become much less important.
I’m driven by continuous continuous improvement. I will often see something that needs to be improved simply because it CAN be improved and because it does have impacts. Having a discussion about the overall impacts of implementing some solution is often helpful and could be added to your performance coaching approach, maybe.
Scott, I think you just described me to a tee. A lot of times, it was/is a lot of work up front, but the end result was automation of very tedious processes that genuinely made/make people’s lives (especially those on the front line) easier. It also forced some people to change their job descriptions to become more proactive problem solvers rather than simply saying something couldn’t be done because they were too mentally lazy or stubborn. Some people simply like their job security, and wake up one day to find they’ve been replaced by a machine.
Some people confuse complaining with engagement. They think they are showing that they care by looking for things to complain about. I like your questions because they can redirect that behavior even when the motivations are “good.”
Some people are habitual complainers. They are often negative, pessimistic, and/or cynical in nature. I once told my own complainer uncle that if he came to me to ask for a job I wouldn’t hire him because of this attitude. He had very bad attitude about “management” and how they are always sticking to the employee. He would tell me about chats he had with “HR” to tell them everything that was wrong with his job, all jobs, employees, managers, the plant, and the company as a whole. He later told me that he was rather hurt by my comments but it made him think about it. (He didn’t change.)
I totally agree with the tips of the article and want to add that you can teach people, though repeated experiences with you, to only come to you with they know what they want, why they care, what they want to see happen, and more importantly, what they are willing to do to make things better (if appropriate). I’ve found that when you allow people to be part of the solution or at least sourcing out the root causes of the issue, the habitual complainers back away from their compliant because they don’t really want to do the work. The people willing to complain for the sake of making things better will step forward with solutions and the work needed.
Two examples from habitual complainers and how I dealt with them while humoring myself:
– I have a couple of employees who always complain that they don’t like our holiday party. Great, I’ll sign you up for the committee next year so you can help us make it better. Next year comes. Suddenly the holiday party isn’t a priority for them. Don’t worry, I’ll put you on my list to ask next year. The fact that I keep a list of people seems to concern them but when I actually ask them that 2nd year the look on their face is priceless. It’s worth keeping the list just for my evil enjoyment.
– Shortly after downsizing and cost containments, (male) habitual complainer comes to me with, “toilet paper is too rough”. (not kidding) I say, compared to what? Names a brand. I say, wow, that’s expensive TP. I whip out calculator and do some (fake) math. Let’s see, we have about # ladies, let’s say 4 times a day and # guys who only need TP once per day… That would be about $X extra per day. For the year that would be $x. What do you think we should give up to absorb that added expense? I look up at employee who now has very wide eyes, blinks a few times, and leaves without a word. Employee later came back after realizing I wasn’t serious and we both had a good giggle.
We really do need a national “Make It Go Away Fairy Day” to celebrate.
It certainly sounds cliche to say, but in this circumstance it seems apropos. Much like the holiday party comment above, I have found that chronic complainers are sometimes best confronted with ownership and empowerment. Empower them (this is difficult especially when an organization is going through any sort of transition) the ability to solve it themselves where perhaps they were never able to before. For example, I do not need a subordinate asking me to buy this item or that one that is critical for their job and within the budget. Speaking of which, has anyone ever engaged them in the budget so they have at least a cursory understanding of the process and its contents? Also, the more they are involved in systems and processes, the less they may complain about one issue or another because they are tied to it and need (by their own discovery) to be part of the solution. Ownership solves a lot. Unfortunately, there are those who will complain and simply not take part in the solution. Sadly some of these people are/were integral parts of the organization and when they leave or become disenfranchised, it is a loss on both sides of the equation. Good luck!
I recently left a job within the NHS after dealing with someone who did the .4 comment. Long time employee, same office for near 30 years, life hadn’t really changed for her/ she resisted life’s natural changes. She expressed ‘care and concern about me’ but her behaviour in the office was the complete opposite. I’ve felt more warmth from a match.
Thanks for jumping in, Luce. Your experience sounds painful. I hope you find something more fulfilling.