How to complain

Let’s talk about one of the ills facing any group of people who are passionate about their work – ‘complaining about how bad things are’.  I’ll list some personal do’s and don’ts on effective complaining, and ways that organizations can help it not destroy morale.Every person that cares about their job complains.  How they complain, the level of detail of the complaint, and who they complain to are different for each person. People complaining badly in an organization that isn’t listening will destroy morale and lead to the sort of stagnation that destroys good organizations.

Personal complaining

Complaining badly is a waste of your time. So, the rules:

Complain only to someone that can help you change what you are complaining about.

All other complaining is effectively gossip.  While it’s certainly not a bad idea to discuss possible solutions with coworkers, if you find yourself complaining about the same thing at lunch with your coworkers over and over without discussing solutions pat yourself on the back – you are part of the problem.

Don’t passively complain

Passive complaining is most complaining – “The government spends too much of my money.”, “I wish I was taller, I wish I was a baller”.  In a professional setting people need solutions.  If you complain about something, don’t let the complaint block you from a solution, and view the opportunity to give feedback as a chance to list problems and present your own solutions.

Common complaint patterns

“John sucks.  They should just replace John”

If they replaced him with you, what would your first actions be?  Take some time to think this over – imagine yourself giving suggestions directly to John.  Suggest those actions instead of replacing John.

What this company needs is leadership.  We need vision from above to tell us what to do.

Be more specific – do you need instruction on how to do your job, what to work on, or is there a clear vision ambiguity? If not, then you are basically sending the message: “I can’t self-manage, and need further instructions from my bosses to do important things.” Again, if you were in their position, what vision would you cast – what are your solutions?

If we could just take three months and clean-everything-up, then we’d be able to get our head above water.

The only companies that are able to stop current work and ‘clean-up’ are dying companies.  I hate to break it to you, but The Great Big Rewrite Of All Our Software isn’t going to happen.  Solutions that allow companies to continue working while improving are much more important than greenfield ones.  It’s a great exercise to actually write out a business case for the “Take three months” plan and really think through the true business value.  Pick five simple things that can be done now and figure out a way to do them.

We need better communication.

Be more specific – are two groups working on the same thing?  Is only half the office showing up to company parties?  Is half of the company selling poison while the other sells antidote? [Actually, that’s not a bad idea]  This statement is just too general.

Joe should be fired.

Even in extreme cases of ethical violations, the open criticism of someone in this way should be avoided.  In the extreme case the complaint should be registered with the proper channels given the rules above.  Focus should remain on the specific behaviors and consequences of said behaviors rather than the person, and you should feel comfortable telling the person directly everything that you tell anyone else.

This place sucks.  This has to be the worst-run company in the world.

If you aren’t allowed to complain, all solutions are blocked, and there is nobody to actually complain to you can still list out your complaints anyway.  You learn from every single experience if you allow yourself to pay attention and you never know when having your thoughts organized will help.

Organizational complaint handling

Let’s talk about the suggestion box.  You know, the one that people put old cigarettes in, and the one where in the movies some brilliant idea shows up from a low-level worker, causing them to rise to sudden fame?  The suggestion box is a sign of certain organizational fear of open criticism, not its opposite.  How can an organization accept open complaining without causing fear and demoralizing its employees?

First, only accept criticism that is inbounds.

See rules above.

Be open to criticism as a means to change.

When an employee complains ask questions, take notes, pay attention.  Even if you have heard the problem and same solution from a different person, tried it, watched the failure of it, and wept openly at the awkward post-mortem (“Seriously guys who thought the beanie baby Christmas bonus was a good idea?”) continue to listen to the new perspective.  The person in front of you is extending themselves and is passionate about the issue and dismissing them in anyway is dangerous.

Be open to criticism that follows chain of command, and discourage other forms.

Start conversations with “Have you talked to John about this?”  [Make sure that somebody named John works for you].Politics can destroy open communication of this form.  How to handle ideas within an organization is a larger subject, but in order to counteract the natural problems with the chain-of-command-only communication pattern, setup chances for higher level management to communicate with people in the details enough to see problems.  Sometimes the first level of management (tech leads, managers) cannot see process issues as they still have one foot in each camp.  In addition a more experienced manager might recognize a solution that others miss.

View complaints and criticism as a sign of a healthy organization, and don’t take it personally.  In the same way that hard conversations are needed in real relationships if you don’t hear complaining it’s a bad sign.  Your employees are complaining, but they might be doing it to the wrong people, and in the wrong way.

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