A Case for Complaining (Yes, You Read that Right)

Take just a moment to think about three individuals with whom you are most comfortable.

When you’re around them, you feel like yourself – the real you. You can say anything without being judged, rejected, or labeled for it.

When you’re with one of these people, you feel safe.

Did your manager at work make this short list? Probably not and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not proposing that you should be besties with your boss but the point I want to raise is that good leaders promote a feeling of safety with their direct reports.

Complaining Can Be Warranted

A trait of effective leadership that you don’t read about very often is the ability to create an atmosphere of safety where employees can express concerns without fear of repercussion or punishment.

Why is this trait important? Because no company is perfect and no position is without its problems. You might have a honeymoon period after you start a new gig but things will eventually come up (even in your dream job) that are frustrating, exhausting, and occasionally demoralizing.

Is it best to bottle those things up or should you express them to your boss? It depends. Sure, some things are better left unsaid but there are times when it is healthy and helpful to complain.

Complaining Can Be Wise

It is uncommon for employees to express their frustrations with transparency – until the exit interview, that is. Then, with nothing to lose, the feeling of safety finally kicks in and they boldly share the reasons why they sought employment elsewhere.

In many cases like this, the things that caused them to leave could’ve been improved had they shared their concerns along the way. It would be wise for leaders to consider encouraging healthy complaining so that they don’t lose their talent.

A good leader intentionally creates an atmosphere of safety that is just as tangible as the feeling an employee experiences during an exit interview.

Some businesses could be much stronger and more profitable if they promoted an atmosphere of safety where managers listened to their employees concerns and were committed to improving the employee experience.

Not only would a company like this retain more of its talent, they would benefit from an ongoing feedback loop from the people closest to the actual work. Managers are often too far removed from the details to even know about inefficient processes, outdated tools, or just plain absurd policies.

Complaining Can Be Welcomed

Good leaders need to hear about the problems their teammates are facing. Its the only way they can step in and help. So complaining should not only be allowed, it should be welcomed, encouraged, and exemplified by managers.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had oversight over multiple teams concurrently – 5 teams at one company and 7 teams at another. With executive leadership being my core responsibility in these roles, I sought out to intentionally create an atmosphere of safety.

My schedule was simply too full for me to get into the details of any individual’s work so I needed them to be transparent. I needed to hear about the issues keeping them from doing their best.

I implemented two intentional leadership strategies to foster a spirit of safety among my team.

Encourage Transparency

First, I encouraged transparency. I asked for it…often. I sought to draw it out until it became natural for them to share their input about what they’d like to see improved.

I had weekly one-on-ones with all of my team leads and direct reports and the first few times I’d say something like this, “I want you to be able to say, without hesitation, that you love your job. If something is keeping you from loving your job, it is most likely also keeping you from doing your best because you always do better when you love what you’re doing. So let me help, for both our sakes. If you get in your car to come to work one of these mornings and notice something resembling dread in the pit of your stomach, I don’t want you to let that build. Talk to me. Remember, my job is to help you love yours.

After opening a couple weekly one-on-ones like that, soon, people started to open up and I learned about obstacles that any manager should want to be aware of. Often, I was able to improve things for them. Sometimes I couldn’t bring about change but at least they knew they were heard. And just having a voice helped them love their job more.

Performance reviews are another opportunity to encourage transparency. I tell my direct reports in advance that half of the time allotted for the meeting will be about their performance and the other half will be their opportunity to provide feedback about my leadership, issues that are impacting our broader team, or they can speak into things they would like to see the entire company do differently.

[By the way, the entire Performance Review system needs a major overhaul at most companies but that’s for another time.]

Exemplify Transparency

My first intentional strategy is to encourage transparency. The second method I employ is to exemplify it. I seek to model the behavior that I want to see in them by showing empathy, sharing some stories of similar situations I’ve been in over the course of my career, and finding common ground that establishes a safe environment.

The key here, however, is to truly care and then to show it. This takes empathy and vulnerability – two traits not always encouraged among managers.

It is important that your direct reports realize you get frustrated too – that you have a heart – that you also know what its like to wrestle with some absurd things sometimes.

I’ll clarify some limitations of complaining in the next section so please don’t assume I am saying it is proper for a manager to display a poor attitude of disrespect toward the company among their staff. That is not at all what I’m getting at.

But let me put it this way. Have you ever worked for someone who always touted the company line? They were a “company man” who never deviated from the script? You know what I mean by “script,” right? Those talking points that executives are expected to memorize and repeat with the same kind of sincerity required to be a used car salesman or politician.

Plastic bosses like this don’t create a spirit of safety. Your team needs to know that you’re a person too. So, in a healthy and helpful way, good leaders need to model transparency with their team.

Now let’s get to those important limitations I was talking about earlier.

Limitations

These should be obvious but they are worth stating.

  • Complaining needs to be done with respect and with a reasonable restraint of emotional outbursts
  • Complaining should never involve attacking a person’s character
  • Complaining should not include gossip, slander, or inappropriate communication of any kind
  • Complaining should be limited to one-on-one conversations (though there are rare exceptions)
  • Complaining should always be directed at finding ways to improve the situation

Please note that this article was written to encourage leaders to promote an atmosphere of safety. But if your boss or company doesn’t welcome transparency, please proceed very cautiously. It may not be wise, warranted, or welcomed in your environment.

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