(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

Complaining about Complaints


Workplace complaints are so tricky.

They immediately put someone - and maybe several people - into an upsetting situation. Then we start having complaints about the complaints. When we have a complaint, we are in a reactive state. Something is wrong and we want it fixed. When something is wrong, we tend to either blame others or the situation, blame ourselves, or step into being the hero and save the day. If we can move out of a reactive into a creative state, new solutions will emerge.

Complaints are never going to go away because we are humans. We care about how things turn out beyond our basic survival needs and are habitually anticipating the impact of past incidents on our future experiences. Employees often want their leader or human resource department to handle the complaint, especially if it is a difficult situation. There are times when this is absolutely appropriate, but often there is an opportunity to coach the employee through the situation and leave them empowered to address it themselves. Or, at minimum, help them identify what their complaint is actually about. Complaints may not be going away, but we can take time to determine what is really going on and not react to what it looks like on the surface. In doing so, learning and insight can take place. And, many of the smaller complaints can be addressed by the employee rather than the employer.

 I have a practice with my own complaints and an approach to addressing them that has served me well over the years. It originated in a personal training program I took in the 1980’s called The Landmark Forum. It was wild, controversial, and profoundly impactful in a way that has stuck with me through all these years. Here are the steps as I use them today:

  1. It starts with identifying the original commitment that was in place before the complaint came to the foreground.
  2. Then, identify which of three things happened that got in the way of the commitment being realized. Was it an undelivered communication, unfilled expectation or thwarted intention? In other words, what conversation did not take place, what expectation did you have that may or may not have been explicit, and what were you originally intending to have happen that did not?
  3. Once identified, consider the best solution to address the complaint. Getting in touch with the original commitment and identifying the source of the complaint allows for more productive solutions that are commitment based rather than complaint based.

 Identify a complaint you have today. Then, take yourself through these three steps to see if a new perspective or solutions comes to mind. We would love it hear how it turned out.