Turning Complaints into Action

For any reader of this who manages people, I’m sure you deal with people coming to you with complaints. What I know from the thousands of people I have discussed this with, your knee jerk reaction, when you see a complaint coming down the hall, is to shut your door, get on the phone, whatever, to try and avoid it. If you can relate to that, here’s a better plan:Scott Hunter Leadership Coaching Photo

Stop what you’re doing, give the complainer your undivided attention, and listen for what he is committed to. In almost all cases, people complain because something they are committed to is not happening and that’s the best they know what to do under the circumstances. So if you listen to the commitment underneath the complaint, you’ll hear it every time.

When you get it, say to him: “it sounds like you’re committed to ….., am I hearing you correctly?” If you practice doing this, you’ll discover that you’ll hear their underlying commitment every time. And if you don’t, they’ll correct you, so either way you win.

The tendency at this point is to tell him what he should do. Do not do that. Nobody likes being told what to do and he will end up actually feeling foolish for not figuring the problem out for himself. Plus, if you keep solving other people’s problems for them, they’ll just keep coming back to you and you’ll end up being problem-solver-in-chief with no time for your real job.

Instead, ask him: “so, what do you want to do about it.” Train people to think for themselves and not come running to you every time they have a problem. And, when they come up with the solution you would have given them anyway, acknowledge them for their brilliance and let them feel like they were the one who came up with the great idea. They will leave feeling good about themselves and good about you and will likely make the solution to the problem work just fine.

The worst thing that could happen, when you ask him what he wants to do about the situation, is that he will answer “I don’t know.” There are two reasons people say that: (1) they haven’t taken the time to figure it out for themselves or (2) they don’t want to take responsibility for coming up with their own solutions. So if you fall for his answer and give him the solution, you disempower him. So don’t let him bait you into giving him the solution if he says that.

Instead, look him right in the eye and say “what if you did know?” Do whatever you need to do to make him come up with his own solutions to his own problems. This is how you train people to be responsible and think for themselves and frees you up to work on bigger issues and not be bogged down with things your subordinates should be handling on their own.

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