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How to boost startup morale and learn from ‘whining’ employees

Instead of letting employee complaints turn into a cycle of negativity, embrace them, says advice columnist Maynard Webb.

How to boost startup morale and learn from ‘whining’ employees
[Photo: George Marks/Getty Images; Ket4up/iStock]

Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. People at my company love to point out all of our problems. They are complaining and whining about things all the time. Truth is, I find it annoying.

—Technology startup founder

Dear Founder,

I understand that you may be taking some of this complaining personally, but you have to rise above your personal feelings and set aside your annoyance and focus your efforts on energizing people.

My advice: put them to work on changing what they don’t like.

At any company, at times, there is going to be some tension and unhappiness. It’s best to surface it—and to invite your people help to fix it.

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At one company, I found that people were always complaining about some other group. Instead of letting it send us into a downward spiral of negativity, I asked them to list the things that they were most unhappy with and that were in their control of fixing. I then asked them to come up with suggestions and ideas on how we could make it better. What’s incredible is that without any more resources, they often did. At eBay, we built an entire process to do this—when things got of sync, we knew the steps we needed to take to set it right. I admire what I saw Marissa Mayer do at Yahoo with her weekly FYI meeting on Friday afternoons, letting employees have a voice about what were the biggest problems, and systematically knocking them off with her PB&J system (process, bureaucracy, and jam). The simple truth is that people appreciate having the opportunity to listen and contribute, especially in tough times.

A few more specific tips to get your team more energized so you may all enjoy better days ahead:

  • First calibrate where you are. What’s the highest energy level your team has ever had? What’s an average day like? What’s today?
  • Celebrate the wins that exist. Do fun things with your team. Take a break to treat your team to a movie, or do some charity work together. It can be simple: At LiveOps, we had random Nerf arrow attacks and paper airplane contests; at AdMob, the sales team rang a gong when a big deal was done. It’s especially important to do this when times are hard.
  • Honor special occasions. Welcome everyone and celebrate every new hire. Acknowledge special occasions such as anniversary dates. IBM used to give a gold watch to celebrate 25 years with the company, but most people don’t stay so long with the same company anymore. You don’t have to wait 25 years. You can celebrate every year, and other milestone anniversaries, in small ways by recognizing people’s achievements in all-hands meetings or by writing them thank-you notes.
  • Personally model the enthusiasm—even when it’s hard. At eBay, the early days were challenging, and even without saying a word, people could tell that I was troubled by something. They got worried and asked what was wrong. I would say, “Wow, just because I wasn’t smiling you think I’m angry, or someone is in trouble.” However, I learned that I had to accept that my actions were leading them to worry. I had to maintain more of a sense of calm, even in an urgent situation. I learned that from Meg Whitman’s leadership. She made me laugh every day, and these interactions helped me get through. As a leader, you need to model courage, candor, and resolve.
  • Spend time engaging with people. Say hello to them in the morning and goodbye at night. Be approachable. Ask about their families, and show them you care about things other than getting their work done. When they miss work because their baby is sick, ask about how the child is doing when they come back.
  • Extend inclusion beyond your employees. It’s important to include the families. People work hard and their families miss them when they’re away—you need to enlist loved ones’ support, as well. Include them in special events. At eBay, Meg took every vice president and above away for a weekend with their families. Being able to share an experience together resonated greatly.

Step up into this role, and don’t let the team bring you down—you need to lead them to greatness!

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