How to Complain Like a Leader
Great leaders have burning complaints.
I wonder how many great endeavors began as great complaints. The United States of America, for example, began with great complaints.
We know the name Martin Luther King Jr. because he voiced his complaint like a leader.
3 ways to complain like a leader:
The difference between complaining like a leader and complaining like a loser is duration, focus, and orientation.
- Discuss problems long enough to understand them.
- Focus on solutions. You never build the life you want by getting lost in things you don’t want.
- Orient language and behavior toward positives. Say what you want, even if you began with complaints.
Find positive expression to negative complaints. The bigger your complaint, the greater the positive outcome you seek.
When you rule out complaining, you lose sight of your purpose.
Great complaints point to purpose. Have you noticed how some are deeply troubled by a problem and others don’t care? Your great complaint explains who you are.
You lose yourself when you silence your great complaint.
Great achievements are answers to great complaints.
When you rule out complaining, you accept the status quo.
The leaderly way to hear complaints:
If you’re fortunate, you hear complaints. If you don’t hear complaints, you’re out of the loop.
- Encourage team members to explain their complaints.
- Listen – don’t solve. When you solve a complainers complaint, they complain about the solution.
- Ask four questions when teammates complain.
- What’s the good you want for others? Solving self-seeking complaints invites more complaints. (This idea is for leaders on your team, not customers.)
- What makes this important to you? Give leaders opportunity to explore motivations and connect with purpose.
- What would you like to do about this today? Always identify simple behaviors. Create forward movement, not perfect solutions.
- How can I help?
There’s more to this topic:
How might leaders get the most out of complaints, both theirs and team members’?
What dangers do you see?
What about perpetual complainers?
At the first department meeting after I was promoted to manager, I told the team that I would not accept any complaints. Before they could start complaining, I said they were free to offer suggestions of things we could do differently that would allow us to do our jobs better, improve performance or just generally make our lives easier. Complaining without having thought about what might be possible to change is like hoping to grow a garden without planting any seeds. Stay safe, Always Care
Thanks Paul. I like the idea of “What can we do better.” You may be missing opportunities by telling people they can’t complain. A good complaint has lots of potential. Cheers
Thanks Dan, no worries, I get your point. The infamous meeting I mentioned was about 25 years ago and it worked a charm. Once we started talking about what we could change instead of “just complaining”, the guys found solutions to things that they hadn’t even started to complain about… Stay safe, Always Care
Love the focus on things you can change. Let go everything else. It wastes energy. When you think about it. Only a crazy person would try to change something out of their control. 🙂
Good stuff Dan, I heard years ago about the necessity for healthy dissatisfaction in an organization. What doesn’t work gets enough attention to correct it. Its a little like taking a tiger by the tail to open the door to complaints but picking off little wins before taking on problems like the Middle East or corporate dress code is a must. Again good stuff.
Thanks Jim. I think we’re afraid to listen to complaints because it opens a can of worms. Or, as you say, it’s a little like taking a tiger by the tail. Feeling like we have to give all the answers and solve everyone’s problem is one reason we shut complaints down. When we solve problems “with” people rather than “for” them, it feels a bit safer. Cheers
Good piece, Dan — thanks! Leading w your 4 questions should be a daily practice.
Thanks Mark. I like the questions because they get us into forward thinking mode. cheers
Excellent post Dan! We have just been speaking about this in our organization. Complaints can be a very positive thing, if they are presented and listened to in a constructive way. This lays that out in a very simple/constructive way. Thanks!
Thanks Bill. Congratulations on having conversations about complaints. Too often the whole issue is buried under the carpet. It takes skill and courage to invite the elephant to dance. Best
Absolutely Dan, Complaints, lead to discussion, to differences and conflict, to decisions and action. If we repress complaints, like you say, we’re out of the loop. Thanks!
Thanks Neil. You reminded me that some of the important changes in my life have been the result of complaints, perhaps most of them.
Leaders who don’t want to hear complaints might want to consider the alternative. Cheers
When people stop complaining they have stopped caring.
Thanks Victoria. Perhaps we should ask complainers, “What do you care about?” I like it. Cheers
always feel that complaining works best when organized, but works poorly when it’s unorganized or chaotic. By that I mean, organized thought for complaints (with some info about impact and some ideas or options) has a better chance of inspiring action toward a positive difference. But unorganized complaining to just spill gripes and get it out theret doesn’t isn’t received very well by others. Unorganized complaints may well be justified, but they feel like whining when there’s no other content or forward thinking including. Who wants to hear whining?
I like to get my team together occasionally to have a total bit** session. We throw the dirt out there, agree that the discussion stays with us and try to not go down any rabbit holes. But within these B-sessions, there are always gems waiting to be found. I try to listen for the gems and ask questions to see what we can go after. It’s a starting point for progress. And a little venting can go a long way too.
I also take a similar approach for one-on-one discussions with associates. I ask for what people don’t like, mainly with intent of exploring. Sometimes things surface that are a real value to pursue. And listening to their pains, along with everything else, still has value from knowing they have a safe zone. But it’s meant for winning (solutions and relationships), rather than whining.
Thanks Mary. Brilliant stuff. Love the B-session. I think it terrifies some leaders. Structure helps.
I was thinking about writing a post on venting, tomorrow. I think of that as unorganized complaining. I never know for sure where I’ll go in the morning, but I think there may be something worth discussing.
One of the things I wonder about is complaining about people vs. complaining about situations.
All marketers know it. That bad feedback is just as great as good feedback….better even. That’s how you find out how to improve 🙂
Thanks Marie. I think Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Cheers
Great post! This is very timely – It’s Monday and there are situations at work that need to be escalated above me. The four questions are helping me to formulate a way to bring up these topics in a way that people will acknowledge the importance and care about the complaint. My upper management always wants the rationale for solutions. Those questions are a nice framework for laying out the problem / solution – hopefully getting a better buy-in.
Thanks Thomas. You remind me that no one really likes a complainer, or, at least a perpetual one. In addition, many leaders aren’t equipped to listen to complaints, much less invite them. (Even though I believe in the power of complaint, you can’t run around complaining all the time.)
It’s good to see that the questions might be useful. Cheers
I like the spirit of solution-based focus that I get from your post. 🙂
I believe habits of both self-talk and team-talk, combined with healthy perspective can make all the difference when it comes to turning complaints into improvement. Reframing is an essential part of this. The quicker we get from that “complaint vibe” to a “seeking improvement” vibe the better off we are.
Instead of complaints, we now have a “desire for improvement.” Every difficulty becomes a “opportunity for focusing our preferences, tuning our solution, and a reason to get better.”
Complaints are presented as, “Here’s what’s going well, and here’s where we are looking for improvement.”
We coach toward recognition of opportunity for improvement, with accompanying WIFMs, instead of telling or complaining or making declarations.
Challenges are approached with a spirit of playfulness, instead of must-win (this makes wins more likely, for “must-wins” introduce pressures that take up mental and emotional energy; energy that is better directed forward, not looking over one’s shoulder).
If the desire for improvement is our driver, and we are not going to constantly pick at ourselves by keeping score to see how bad we are doing, but only to see if what we are doing is working, and how to tune it; we are going to continue to focus on what is going right, and even have some fun (imagine that) innovating and tuning our solutions.
In fact, our desired win is our excuse to move forward in the process of improvement. The process, after all, is most of our life: both business and otherwise.
The end doesn’t justify the means; the end is a waypoint to pull us through the gift of the process, and once realized, we’ll appreciate, then move to the next improvement.
Waste the process; waste your life.
If England had said, “Hey, no problem, the colonies are yours. To your health!” what would our founders have learned about their natures, and what was truly meaningful to them? Would they have so finely tuned Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
This last, is a challenging perspective for most, but when we entertain it, even on trial basis, we might find that we better accept the gift of challenge, and get more comfortable with discomfort, on the way to becoming more, both individually and as a group.
I shoot for doing this 51% of the time and ask teams to do the same. Once one starts practicing, the momentum of efficacy takes one past that milestone. 🙂
I like the topic, Dan. 🙂
Thanks Mark. Wonderful insights. I’m with you. Get to solution-making ASAP. We also agree on coaching toward recognition of opportunity. Fixing the bad stuff isn’t fulfilling or effective over the long-haul.
What I find missing in many leadership and coaching circles is an openness to jump into the muck for awhile. The leader/coaches job is to accept where people are before moving forward. In a way, I can’t believe I’m writing this because I’m all about getting to solution-finding. Generally speaking, people who love talking about problems and complaints spend way too much time in the darkness.
I struggle really hard on this topic. How do we push for greatness, always challenging the status quo and not look like “is never good enough” ?
Thanks Marcio. Love what you bring up. People who push for excellence seem to be the ones with the complaints. It’s pretty easy to come of as negative because nothing is ever good enough.
One thought might be to separate celebration from “how can we be better.” Honor success and don’t add, “how can we be better.” Do that another time.
I give teams several standard questions that might normalize the pursuit. 1. What’s working? 2. Where/how can we be better?
The other thing that comes to mind is the culture. Are people geared to constantly push themselves? It seems easier if they are.
If the culture is less aggressive about pursuit, how might you honor progress while building on success.
I like the idea of honoring effort vs. achievement. When we honor achievement we feel as if we’ve arrived.
Thanks for getting me thinking…best wishes
I like what Dan wrote, and I hope that neither of you mind if I jump in to add that, in my opinion, there is a fundamental flaw in the binary, or polarized view of reality we find prevalent in our world: that we need to feel dissatisfaction with now, in order to want more, or want improvement.
It’s true, that’s it often how it works, but in my opinion, it doesn’t have to go that way. In fact, often making peace with now, and even appreciating now, adds energy to going for the next improvement.
There is another choice of paradigm. We can make the reason to go for improvement the satisfaction, even joy, in the process of improving. It’s fun, it’s energizing, it’s part of why we are here. Even as we age, and perhaps lose in some areas, we gain and others. We can always go for improvement somewhere. Every choice we make is motivated by the desire for some kind of improvement, anyway.
Someone who practices this kind of integrated approach stands out, and their energy and way of being is catchy. You might say it supports a culture of getting “pulled to more,” rather than “running from,” or “pushing to impress.” With this kind of leader, mistakes and discomfort are faced and folded into new choices on how they will get where they are going, not objects of resentment in the way of what they are needing to prove or “make happen.”
We’re talking about a sea-change by a trickle of constant practice, but in my experience, it pays off. We’ve taught ourselves practically from birth that the end-state is the thing, and every one is on board. It takes some real mindfulness to keep the end-state in perspective as one important part of reason to move forward, but lend well-spent focus to mining the richness in the minute-to-minute game.
In my view, one of the largest challenges a transformational leader faces today, is the consensus din of quick-fix, dot-pointed formulae that everyone “needs” to follow to prove out as a “success” or “winner.”
What I like about Dan’s work, is he is always asking us to look deeper, ask great questions (like yours), and integrate the resulting answers into productive action. 🙂
Good article. Complaints are feedbacks and when one learns this truth, he begins to take the baby steps ahead as, it is in the awareness lies the fundamentals of leadership. Leaders may not have burning complaints, but they definitely have burning desire to know what complaints are made of where in lies the seeds of solutions towards resolution of complaints!