Complaining Is Good Business

a meeting listening to complaints

by Ruth D Schwartz

“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” – Brené Brown

There is an old management adage that comes up from time to time. And when it does, it is stated with nods, winks, and knowingness. It goes something like this, “Don’t come to me with your complaints. If you are going to complain, bring the solution -then I will pay attention.”

For the record, each time I hear ANY variation of this, I want to throw up. Complaining is a symptom that something is wrong. And this adage is like telling a kid, “Don’t be sad before you know how to become happy.”

In a brilliant political essay titled ” In Defense of Complaining,” Sarah Kendzior explains:

“Complaint is often perceived as an alternative to action. Those who complain are criticized as ‘just complaining,’ instead of ‘actually doing something.’ But for marginalized and stigmatized groups – racial and religious minorities, women, the poor, people who lack civic rights – complaining is the first step in removing the shame from a lifetime of being told one’s problems are unimportant, nonexistent, or even a cause for gratitude. Complaining alerts the world that the problem is a problem.”

Have you ever had anyone tell you to bring the solution if you are going to point out a problem? What is your reaction? Mine is to feel heat in my face: embarrassment. I think that yes, surely they are right, and then… drum roll… I feel stupid, humiliated, and vulnerable. Why? Because inevitably, I don’t have the solution. In fact, I’m not sure that I even have the right question.

“The important thing in my view is not to pin the blame for a mistake on somebody, but rather to find out what caused the mistake.” – Akio Morita

And therein lies the problem with this thinking. If we want to continuously improve, then it must be safe to point out a problem. Complaining is the proverbial pointing out of a problem. I have a management policy that goes something like this: You can complain. You can get mad, sad, frustrated, and stupid. And then I’ll ask you a critical question, “What would you like to happen?”

Sometimes people will stop, shake their heads, and say, “Thanks for listening. I’m done.”

Sometimes people will ask for feedback about the problem, either from me or someone in particular.

Sometimes they want to wage full-scale war, rally the troops, and process a solution.

Sometimes they have thought about it enough to have a solution, which may or may not be THE solution.

Herein lies the problem with this sort of problem-solving: We are so quick to find a solution that we often solve the wrong problem.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

Here are the reasons that people don’t solve problems:

  • We don’t know how.
  • We don’t know what the problem is.
  • We don’t know what the causes or sources may be.
  • We treat symptoms.
  • We are not clear who has responsibility and authority.
  • We don’t have the right people involved.
  • No one sees the whole picture.

“For solving a surprisingly large and varied number of problems, crowds are smarter than individuals.” – Michael Shermer

We often rush to the solution, only to find that it is not the best. Even when we have thought about it quite a bit, the solution needs a massage, and other times we can see that we haven’t asked the right question.

We need more people, perspectives, and ideas to solve most problems. Even the biggest complainers in our lives are asking for help, sounding the alarm or unearthing root problems that are not being addressed.

Take, for example, an insurance officer who was an annoying complainer. Her complaint month after month is that staff meetings are a waste of time. Management brushed her off until I asked, “What does she want to have happen?” Her solution: end all staff meetings. But the root cause was the nature of the meetings, and when the issue was taken to the staff, an open conversation began about meeting improvements.

Take another example of a complainer in a plumbing company who had a reputation for multiple complaints. This irritated her manager. I asked the manager what he would like to have happen. The answer was “Stop complaining!” Upon closer inspection, we discovered the root cause. There was no grievance procedure in place. Dumping “on his desk” was the only solution, and it wasn’t a good one. Now there exists a process AND a part of the process is to ask the question, “Are you venting or do you want something to happen?” The result: fewer complaints, better solutions.

It is my belief that when management asks for the solution at the same time they hear the complaint, what they are REALLY saying that they will not solve the problem for the complainer. And that is understandable. But this attitude creates distrust.

In any organization that aspires to innovation, improvement, and problem-solving, you must create an environment for complaining and bringing up problems so that trust will thrive and problems will get solved.

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