What Are People Really Complaining About?

Look deeper into seemingly shallow grievances to get to the root of workplace complaints.

Not long ago, I was in Las Vegas doing a panel discussion at a conference for HR managers. One of them asked why so many employees seem to have a sense of entitlement. If a small perk (like free lunch on Fridays) gets taken away, suddenly there are loud complaints. This manager was frustrated by these complaints and angry with her colleagues that they would come to her with seemingly petty complaints.

Now, it is quite possible that she works with a group of petty individuals who gripe at the drop of a hat. But, it is also possible that there is more going on here than just the perks.

To see why, think about why so many people go to see therapists to help them handle difficult situations in their lives and relationships. A key reason comes from the structure of our brains.

The motivational mechanisms in our brains govern how we take the goals we want to pursue and turn them into actions. Many of these brain regions reside deep inside the brain. They are evolutionarily old mechanisms that we share with lots of other animals. Consequently, these mechanisms are not that well connected to newer brain regions like those that give human beings self-awareness.

That means that when we try to figure out why we are feeling the way we do, we actually have to observe our own behavior and create an explanation. And sometimes, we get that explanation wrong.

Take the situation with the disappearing free lunch. Suppose that several employees are already frustrated and anxious at work. Perhaps they have been having difficulties with their boss. Or, they might be concerned about impending layoffs. It might just be that the work environment feels less friendly than it used to. Whatever the problem is, these individuals might not be completely sure where the stress is coming from, they just know something is wrong.

Now, on top of everything else, the company takes away Friday lunch. That is an easy explanation for why they are upset, and so they complain about it.

If you just listen to what everyone is saying, you might react like the HR manager who asked me the question and get angry with your colleagues. You might try to solve the problem as it was stated. But, chances are, restoring the free lunch won’t fix the underlying problem.

Instead, you need to act a bit more like a therapist. Your goal is to find the underlying problem before you leap into trying to fix it.

Here are three things you can do.

Listen First.

Most people who rise to the ranks of leadership have gotten there because they get things done. As a result, they have a problem-solving mentality. They hear about a problem and want to get started on fixing it.

When people come with complaints, though, it is important to start by hearing them out. There are two reasons why this is valuable.

First, there are times when people just need to get a frustration off their chest. There may not be a problem to solve, but you can’t know that until you give people a chance to talk and to truly be heard.

Second, in the process of talking, people may also give clues about other things that are bothering them. Do they mention that they have been anxious or stressed for a while? Is there a pattern to what they complain about?

Look at the context.

When we see someone else do something, we often assume they acted as they did, because of some factor about who they are. It is natural, then, when you hear someone complain to assume that is because they are whiny. You have to overcome that natural bias and look at the situation in which the complaint occurred. Take a little time to find out more about what is going on in their work environment.

In the free lunch case, it might be that Friday lunch was the time when everyone got together to discuss progress for the week. When the lunch disappeared, everyone felt less connected to their work group.

Help people solve their own problems.

It is tempting to hear a complaint and to want to fix the problem. But, it is important to create a work environment in which issues can get resolved before they escalate to the point where complaints are being lobbed around.

That means that you have to ask a lot of questions and lead people to generate their own solutions. Even after you are pretty sure what the problem is, you might not want to give your recommended solution right away. Instead, continue the conversation. Lead people by asking questions that help others to understand the problem and develop their own solutions. That will take longer in the moment, but it will create a better-functioning workplace in the long run.

For Friday lunch, if the group members discover that they are no longer getting together to discuss the work week, they can plan their own lunch excursion once a week or have a bag-lunch Friday to make sure everyone communicates. The key is to make sure that they are taking control and ownership of the process.

Finally, remember that these same principles apply to yourself. There will be times when you are upset at something that has happened, but the real problem lies somewhere else. At those times, engage with a colleague to help you figure out what is really going on.

[Image: Flickr user Garry Knight]

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1 Comments

  • Scott Nushart

    Sorry, but you missed yet another option here. How about the situation where the employees really ENJOYED the perk. At that point, why was there no cost/benefit analysis done on whether or not the practice was appreciated (just stand in the room and listen to the conversation, first of all...). Then the cessation of the practice should have been weighed against the benefit.

    Years ago, I worked with a small manufacturing business of 25 employees. We gave out the obligatory hams and turkeys at holidays. One year the president worked a deal and got 7 lb hams instead of 10 lb. You would have thought the sun ceased to rise that day! Besides losing about 30 hours of productive time on the floor, the psychological damage was immeasurable.

    Big cost savings? Not! Bigger impact? Of course! Be careful when you make those arbitrary Us/Them decisions, unless you truly know and understand the motivations and the unintended consequences.