Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Contain the Complainers!

There always seems to be a few complainers in every group. People who are just negative or who regularly complain about their work and their bosses to coworkers.

In response to this issue I would suggest that there are any number of possible causes. It could be that the person has succumbed to some external force that you have no control over, OR there are those that complain about work that they feel they have no control over, AND then there is nothing worse than the complainers who complain about something they have complete control over. I find this latter type the most infuriating as they are always looking to blame someone else for their own failures.

So what can we do about it?
Now let's break down the areas that enable the complainers. The first is Motivation which falls under the domain of leadership and the second is Organization which falls under the domain of management.

Let's start with Organization.
One of the first tools I learned in the battle against negative Nelly's or complainers is to make them the managers. I know, this seems counter-intuitive and when I heard it for the first time many, many years ago I was shocked. My initial reaction at that time would have been to weed those people out of the organization.

I first heard of this technique from a plant manager who was running a unionized automotive parts manufacturing facility. He couldn't fire unionized staff so he did the next best thing, he promoted them to non-unionized positions - supervisor or manager. The complainers either raised themselves up and took on the challenge of correcting their own complaints or if they were complaining for the sake of complaining they quickly exited or were fired for failure to deliver. Problem solved.
This seems like a great technique until you analyze the process. What is really happening here is that the manager does not have a system to deal with problems in the team so the manager abdicates his/her responsibility by passing it on to someone else. This may work short term with a single individual but couldn't possibly deal with all of the complainers, just the most vocal ones. This will really just ensure a cycle of problems for the manager to deal with. At some point you may end up with too many managers and no one to do the work.

Another tool is the old stand-by of fear and intimidation. This typically raises the level of complaints but drives them underground for fear of the manager hearing them. This management technique creates a management bubble which ensures that any feedback, either positive or negative, will not reach the ears of management. Again, it doesn't address the problem and tends to be demotivating, increasing turnover and quashing innovation; all of which are a drag on productivity and efficiency.

A tool that I've applied to great effect is to move the complainer into a client facing role. After a few days of listening to client complaints, especially complaints that are the result of that person's own work, the person will finally start to think about the effects of their work and start to focus on what's really important and stop complaining about things that are not.

The best solution would be to institute a change management system (the complaint department) and put the complainers in charge. What you achieve by doing this is to effectively turn the complaints into solutions and the complainers into solution providers. You also force the complainers to think their complaints through to a solution and then delivery. They either come up with a solution and participate in it's delivery or they come to the conclusion that it wasn't worthwhile and stop complaining.
A change management system is where all of the complaints, internally or from customers, are entered and reviewed monthly by the domain manager individually or in a meeting with the team.
This will give you a formal process with which to help you build better systems and refocus everyone on improving systems instead of blaming or complaining about people.
A wonderful side effect of this process is that this process will teach the participants the decision process of the domain manager effectively delegating it.

Of course, in order to keep people thinking about solutions you have to act upon them. If you don't your staff will return to complaining.

Now we come to Motivation or Leadership.
Great leaders have a bold and compelling vision. A vision that energizes and motivates everyone to achieve an objective. A vision that turns people from ordinary to extraordinary.
The message and actions of the leader will convey a set of objectives, values and standards that will emerge as the corporate culture. If there is a lack of leadership then there is no unifying purpose. If everyone is exercising their own vision for their own purpose you will essentially have anarchy. It's hard to stay focused if you are questioning the purpose of your role in an organization or worse the purpose of the company. This lack of purpose is a breeding ground for complaints and complacency. It's hard to get engaged when your future is uncertain or unknown.

Actually complaints are signals or signs that you are not communicating coherently and without complainers you would never know.

Great leaders don't assume that they know all the answers or what the future will hold. They don't want to miss out on the next big thing and their culture tolerates, and even rewards, complaints. Keith R. McFarland writes in his book, "The Breakthrough Company", that one of the characteristics of the $250M rapid growth companies he examined is that the leadership was very tolerant of dissenters and even let people pursue ideas for new business even when they thought they were wrong. Sony is another great innovator who has been known to finance an employee with a new product idea so as not to loose them or miss out on a new opportunity.

The real lesson learned here is that the people who are doing the complaining are typically the ones who actually care about your business. They are the vocal ones, the people who are more than likely to participate in and take on organizational responsibilities. In other words, affect change. Without these people things wouldn't change and change is required if any organization is going to adapt and be successful. "If you don't complain things will never change".

The same kind of system that initiates organizational changes can be applied to corporate leadership changes as well. It's a great way to get people to start thinking beyond their individual role and start to think about how what they do effects the whole organization and the success or failure of the organization. People are less likely to complain if they understand their purpose and feel like they are contributing beyond their cubicle. Setting corporate objectives, values and standards should be something that everyone who wants to participate in be given an opportunity to do so. This could be an "open door" policy to something more formal where there are cross functional teams who engage in strategic planning at regularly scheduled intervals. Knowing the big picture and what's coming next is very empowering and can be very effective in quelling the complaints.

If you don't embrace change it will be at your organization's peril. If you do not have a system for change then your organization will be locked into practices that don't work for, and don't include, everyone which leads to complaints, high turnover and limits growth potential and productivity.
Don't turn off your complainers, nurture them by listening and teaching or mentoring.

Why do your staff complain?

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