How to Handle Complaining Employees

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Who likes to listen to employees who complain? 

No one!

But complaining is a common response to frustration and sometimes leaders hear them all day, every day.

While playing a drop-in tennis game today, I got into an interesting conversation with Ken, who is 80 years old (yep, he’s so inspiring…still playing!). Ken is now retired, but he started his career as an endocrinologist and then “crossed over to the dark-side” of management and held several c-suite positions during his lifetime. After hearing about my work, Ken said, “One thing I didn’t like much was the complaint box.” 

“Oh?” I replied, staying quiet and listening for his next intriguing statement.

“But I liked the suggestion box. People loved to share what the problem was,” he said. He went on to explain that throughout his years in executive leadership, people came to him with complaints when he really wanted them to come to him with a suggestion. For years he would ask his complaining employees the question, “what do you suggest we do about that?” He credited his mentors for teaching him this habit. Ken’s story is a great example of what we teach in our leadership development program.  It’s not complicated.

It’s simple.

But many leaders have a different response to complaints.

What can a leader do to help complaining employees develop the habit of perpetuating suggestions instead? Try asking a question the next time you hear a complaint. 

  • What do you think we could do about that?
  • What do you suggest we do?
  • How would you change things to get a different result?
  • What is working about that?
  • What do you think needs to change?

After you ask the question, stay quiet for 10 seconds. If they respond with “I don’t know,” then stay quiet for 10 more seconds! Resist the urge to give them your solution right way. (Don’t be Pavlov’s dog.)

Eighty percent of the time people know what they should do; they are just more comfortable coming to you instead of taking a risk and being wrong. 

Little changes like this can have big effect on the impact of your leadership and transform your complaining employees into solution-driven teammates.

What else can you do as a leader to strengthen your team?

We offer a series of online courses, that are used in our flagship LeadWell program, that are self-paced, engaging and varied in time commitment to suit your busy schedule.

Or, feel free to reach out to contact us to discuss your leadership and team development needs.

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