Your number one leadership job is to support your team to achieve its goals. Employee complaints give you an excellent opportunity to support your people, build their confidence, connect them to one another, and remove barriers to a productive team. Begin by discerning what your employee most needs: to vent–or an intervention?
Many managers wince at the mention of employee complaints. If you’re one of them, you might picture a chronic complainer who always has something negative to say. If so, I’d invite you to consider the opportunity these complaints give you. It’s not about making everyone happy. Rather, employee complaints give you a chance to listen deeply and either help people discover their capacity to solve problems or to address and resolve serious workplace issues.
Your First Job with Employees Complaints
Your first task when your team members bring up a complaint is to listen. Begin by acknowledging how they feel. For example, you might say “It sounds like you’re feeling like you were treated unfairly. Is that right?”
When you do this “reflect to connect” and check in to make sure you understand how they’re feeling, people feel seen and intense emotions release some of their grip.
5 Questions to Ask Before Responding to Employee Complaints
Sometimes your team member just needs to blow off some steam. They get the issue off their chest, they feel heard, and they’re ready to keep moving or figure it out on their own.
Other times, however, there is a serious issue that requires your intervention. It could be anything from unclear instructions on your part to a problematic process or even a serious ethical problem like harassment.
You don’t want to be unresponsive or unsupportive in either case. But how do you discern whether the employee needs to vent or needs your intervention?
The answer is to ask questions that help the person tell what needs to happen next. (I shared three of these questions in a recent video on LinkedIn and people added a couple more that I’ll share here.)
Question 1: Tell me what you want me to know.
This question is more of a request than it is a question, but it plays the same role. I learned this question from trial attorney Heather Hansen when she was a guest on Leadership without Losing Your Soul (check out 8:41 of this episode to hear her powerful explanation).
The beauty of this question is that it helps guide the person to share what is truly most important to them. When you ask it sincerely is heartfelt and it is efficient.
Question 2: How might I help?
This question helps the person identify exactly what they want. If they need to vent and talk it out, they’ll often say so. If they want you to take action, this question helps them clarify their request.
Your most effective action may not be the one they ask for, but you still will know exactly what they want. At times, a follow-up question might be appropriate. When they ask for a specific intervention, you might follow up by asking, “what would you hope the outcome of that would be?”
This gives you a good sense of what they really want. If they want a peaceful workspace, your intervention may or may not be the best solution, but now you know what they truly want.
Question 3: Should the three (or more) of us talk together?
When employee complaints are about another person’s activity or performance, this question can help you sort out whether the complainer is playing games, has a legitimate issue, or is fearful of retaliation or harassment.
If you’re talking to someone who’s playing politics, they’ll usually defer right away and break off the conversation. When there’s a true misunderstanding, they’ll often welcome a three-way clarifying conversation.
For someone who has brought up an issue of harassment or unethical behavior, this conversation may not be appropriate and your best course is to engage your Human Resource partners to help safeguard the employee’s wellbeing while figuring out what happened.
Question 4: What will serve you best right now?
Debbie Cohen, CoFounder of Humanity Works shared this question with me. It’s a nuance of question 2 and a great follow-up or alternative as you explore options. It’s another way of discerning whether the person needed to vent or really needs your help.
Question 5: Why do you think that this happened? (or is happening?)
This question comes from a member of my LinkedIn community, Bill Duffy, C.O.O. at Flight Adventure Parks. This question is a powerful way to follow up on tangled or unclear situations. Ask it with empathy and sometimes the person complaining can reason their way to an understanding of the other party, identify the process or system that’s broken, or help you gain insight about your next steps.
As you ask these questions, continue to listen and “check for understanding” to ensure you have the details right. For example, “I want to check for understanding here–you spent three nights working to get that project done and then heard nothing back after you turned it in?”
Your next steps will depend on the specifics of the situation, but when you face employee complaints, the best place to begin is to listen, ask questions, and listen some more.