Why Employee Complaints Are Optimistic

By Jonathan Raymond

Complaining is an incredibly optimistic thing to do. Bringing up the same issue three meetings in a row is too. How, you ask?

Just think about motivation for a moment. Even if you don’t like how the complainer is saying it, they are actually saying, “we could be doing _______ so much better than we are”. Is that how you’re hearing the angst on your team today?

Putting down those daily ‘rebellions’, whether you do that outwardly or in more subtle ways in your culture, is a tragic waste of your talent. Because there’s literally nobody who sees the gaps better than the people on your team.

The ‘lower down’ they are (which is almost always closer to your customers) the more clear their vision is. The only thing they lack is credibility and authority inside the organization, which makes it feel unsafe and risky for them to be too loud about what they see. Which is why you have to listen that much harder.

Creating Safe Spaces

You could say your most important job as a team leader is to do everything in your power to make it safe for them, and to support them in articulating what they see in a way they don’t know to do yet. Oh, no.

You have their paycheck in your hands. You have their future promotion in their hands. It’s going to take work, your best work. It’s going to take mentoring. You’ll need to listen in a new way, to see past the rough edges and the ‘limited view’ they have, so that you can learn all the many wondrous things they have to teach you, things like:

The things that are most frustrating to your customers (so you can fix your product)

The day-to-day reality of what it’s like to work in your business (so you can fix your culture)

The gap between what you think the goals are and what they think they are (so you can get your project back on track)

The sequence of things they’re trying to tackle that’s not what you intended (so you can get them working on the next most important thing)

There’s only one catch to having all those perks. You have to learn to live with a little rebellion now and then. Because that’s what optimism is. It’s a little rebellion, a little post-it note that says ‘we can do better’.

If employee complaints come in a constructive tone, that’s gravy. But remember, the best optimists are often the worst politicians. They can’t hide their frustration. They make noise because they can’t not, because they’d rather get fired than do mediocre work. Is there any person you want to keep on your team more than that?

You Have To Listen It Out Of Them

So, why not start helping them be more negative (aka optimistic!). Here’s five questions you can play around with. Try one a week for the next five weeks. Make it playful, keep it respectful, make room for each question to start a conversation. And make sure you’re the one taking notes.

What’s the thing you like about our business the least?

What’s the thing you dislike about your job the most?

What’s the thing that frustrates our current customers to no end?

What’s the one thing about our product or service you feel you have to apologize for?

What’s the one change you would make to our product or business if you were in charge?

All you have to do is open the door, and make it clear that you’re interested in what they have to say. If you have to fake it, don’t bother. They’ll see right through it. Your people want nothing more than to have this conversation with you, but they need to feel you’re really interested in hearing the answers.

Consider this…what if their greatest desire is to have you hear their dreams of how it could be, about the world they want to live in, and the product they want to jump-in with all their heart to help create? Is there anything else more important on your agenda today than that?

Jonathan RaymondJonathan is the CEO of refound, a startup that offers training and mentoring to help leaders learn the art of cultural listening. He lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife Aleks, daughter Livia and the world’s laziest dog.



Image Credit: Bark/Flickr

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