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Nobody likes complainers — the people who always have something negative to say. And in the workplace, constant complaints have negative consequences that reach into multiple areas of productivity, camaraderie, leadership and culture. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.
This is why it’s important to understand how to turn these bad apples into applesauce — in other words, how to turn complainers into problem solvers. The techniques outlined below can help you and your employees better understand how to tackle problems.
For instance, let’s say you’ve assigned the lead role on a project team to one of your employees. A teammate, Mario, is working hard to steal their thunder. They’ve tried addressing it with Mario, to no avail.
They want to be treated fairly, and they want to complain, but they know that won’t get results. Running to you and saying, “Anna, you told me to take the lead on this project, but Mario stole it from me,” is going to make them sound like a whiner and someone who can’t work well in teams. Instead, let’s turn this complaint situation into an opportunity.
Instead, they should go to you and say: “Anna, I’m excited to be working on this new project. The whole team is energized. In fact, Mario has started to take the lead on the project reporting and seems to be enjoying it. Is that OK with you? And, if so, what’s something else I can take the lead on?” or “And, if so, is it OK if I take over the creative side of the project?”
See the difference? They’re not complaining — they’re stating the facts. They’re presenting the problem, and then they’re asking for help with figuring out a solution or presenting a possible solution. In fact, that’s the three-step format you can teach your employees for turning any complaint into a problem/ solution presentation.
Step one: state the relevant facts
Present the facts needed for someone to understand the situation and provide any necessary context. If there are opinions involved, make sure your employees own them, but are trying to keep them at a minimum unless they’re directly relevant to the problem at hand or the situation they want changed.
Step two: present the situation or problem
As in the example above, the fact was that Mario was taking over your lead employee’s assigned responsibility. The situation or problem is that your team leader now has no clear responsibility and they need one. This step also involves outlining any measures they’ve taken to solve the problem themselves. For example, if they were trying to figure out the proper protocol for requesting professional development funds and had already consulted the employee handbook and couldn’t find the answer, they’d want to let you know that they’d had already taken that action. This demonstrates that they’ve been proactive in trying to find a solution before coming to you.
Step three: ask for help or offer a solution
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, especially if the employee has already tried to help themselves (and has communicated that with the second step). At this point, they need to make sure they’re ready to act on the solution given to them. If they have a potential solution of their own, this is where they should present that for consideration.
You know, [supervisor], I really want to succeed on this project, but I don’t feel I have the resources. I went to HR and asked for X, but they said it wasn’t available. I also talked to [name] and he wasn’t able to offer any insight. I’m kind of at a loss. Can you help me?
They’re stating the facts, noting that the problem exists, and saying what they’ve done to try to solve it on their own. Now they’re asking for help. That’s not a complaint. They found a problem, tried solutions and now need their manager’s support. That’s dynamic communication.
Reasonable vs. incessant complaints
You may have an open-door policy as a manager, but you don’t want to let it be a floodgate for complaints. But some complaints do have merit — they may just not be phrased well. The decision to phrase something as a complaint is a communication choice, and sometimes, good people make poor communication choices. You need to be able to distinguish between reasonable and incessant complaints.
For instance, in high-stress situations, employees who might otherwise bring solutions to the table may come to you with complaints. This is where distinguishing between reasonable and incessant complaints is important, as you don’t want to devalue the contributions of a team member who’s typically solution-oriented but is currently in a stressful situation. Here are some strategies for dealing with reasonable and incessant complaints.
For reasonable complaints, it’s important to recognize what’s being communicated and paraphrase it back to the person making the complaint. This demonstrates you’re listening and ensures you’ve reached a clear understanding of the problem and all the variables at play. If you don’t feel you have a solid grasp of the situation, ask the necessary questions to clarify.
Incessant complaints are sometimes simply a cry for attention. You need to determine if this is the case and, if it is, why the employee is seeking attention in this way. Getting to the root of that problem is productive on multiple levels, as you can not only stop the endless complaint stream but can often identify root cause issues and quickly turn the conversation around.
Another way to deal with incessant complaints is to turn the complaint into a problem/solution opportunity. This puts the onus on the complainer to actually take responsibility for the situation — or at least recognize that they just want to rant. In these situations, use the three steps outlined above to help your employee present the complaint in a different way.
OK, Xavier. I see you’re upset about the new compensation plan.
(Acknowledging that you heard)
What are the specific aspects of the plan that frustrate you?
(Getting to Step 1 — stating the facts)
These things are bothering you because . . .?
(Addressing Step 2 — presenting the problem)
What do you think would be a better approach?
(Encouraging Step 3 — offering a solution)
Complaints can derail productivity, impact morale and slow progress. But they can also be a helpful warning sign for legitimate problems in your business. When you turn complaint situations into problem/solution opportunities, you get to the real causes behind the issues and move forward in a manner that benefits all involved.