Should you reinforce complaining?

Categories: Behavior change, Employee Engagement, LeadershipAuthor:

Should leaders avoid reinforcing employee complaining?

I think there are two categories of complaining, destructive complaints and constructive complaints.

Destructive complaints are comments that don’t serve much purpose other than making your audience nod their heads or cringe.  Examples include:  “Management never listens to anything,” “I hate my job”, and “My boss is a lunatic.”  These types of complaints are mostly emotional and they don’t include actions that can be taken to resolve the issue.  It is tempting to attribute these types of complaints to faulty personalities.

Constructive complaints, on the other hand, are complaints with solutions built in.  For example, “I’d submit more close calls in safety if I could just write them on a piece of paper rather than having to use the laborious computer system.”  These types of complaints are pure gold because they are easy wins for management.  Leaders should want people telling them openly and honestly what can be done to make their job better because that makes the leader’s job easier!   I’d say, these types of complaints should absolutely be reinforced with not just a thank you, but some action, too, whenever possible.

But wait, I didn’t condemn the destructive comments yet, and for good reason.

There are at least three potential reasons why people make destructive comments, and leaders can act on each of them:

1)  Sometimes people don’t have the skills to frame complaints constructively and that needs to be coached.
2) There are so many issues that people started making blanket statements to represent them all.
3) Leaders didn’t act on previous constructive comments and this is making employees frustrated and emotional.

Destructive comments are reflective of the organizational culture, especially when they are coming from more than one person.   When you start hearing them a little too often, this indicates that leaders need to spend some time figuring out what the real issues are and looking for some quick wins.

Some people fear that employee complaints are endless.  The truth is, they aren’t, and once you address the top 2-3 issues others start to fall off of the list.

Upset, frustrated, complaining employees is a problem  – a leadership problem. They are an indicator that the current environment needs changing.  This means that complaints should be listened to and acted upon, even reinforced, not punished.

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