The Leader and complaints - Opportunities to increase learning

Very often, when we start a change job in a company, we come across individuals and teams who voice their complaints to us, consultants, organizational facilitators.

Executives at different levels – CFOs, area directors, department heads, function managers , coordinators, analysts - complain about the most different topics:

• How much they do not have the freedom or authority to do what they believe is best for the organization;

• The lack of feedback from their immediate superior;

• The lack of time to take care of strategic things;

• The difficulty in balancing the demands of personal life with the commitments of professional life;

• The difficulty of having a conversation without defenses or barriers and many others.

At the same time, leaders complain that their subordinates cannot understand the difficulty of the problems they face and receive little contribution to solving them.

Much energy is put into the act of complaining, which on the one hand helps reduce the pressure of whoever complains also contributes to the dispersion of energy and the contamination of the work environment.

The question we need to answer is:

How can leaders use the energy spent in the act of complaining to produce something positive for the company?

No one complains for nothing. If there's a complaint, there's a reason, even if it's hidden or subconscious. However, the most common is that when faced with a complaint, leaders choose three paths[1]:

• They try to be sympathetic, empathetic, and try to make the other understand how much they see and understand the difficulty of the complaint.

• Since leadership positions have more information and a broader view, they try to put the complaint in a bigger perspective, or consider other elements of the situation.

• On the spur of the moment, they can try to resolve the problems so that the initial reasons for the complaints disappear.

The alternatives mentioned above, despite being valid in their contexts, do not provide much for the expansion of learning for the led. The leader remains in a position of responsibility for solving problems, replicating a dependent relationship[2], as we often find in parent-child relationships.

So, how can leaders use complaint situations to generate learning in the organization and channel the energy for a transformation process?

Rather than confronting the grievance, leaders can use the energy imbued in the grievance to look for alternatives. It doesn't matter whether the complaint is fair or unfair, what matters is what moves someone to complain. What is important that mobilizes that person to complain and put him in that position?

Leaders can create a space that allows[1]:

1. Generate an opportunity for your team members to identify what they most consider/appreciate/value.

2. Allow time for your team members to assess what issues or principles are at stake in the situation.

3. Help your team members identify what they are committed to doing in relation to complaints.

By treating the person who complains as a potential agent for change, leaders contribute to the subordinate's development, offering them a genuine opportunity to review their values ​​and assumptions, as well as transform their actions and positively influence the work environment.

A leader who resists the temptation to be the center of attention, pulling all the responsibilities to himself, enriches the experience of his subordinates, creating opportunities to increase their seniority.

At the same time, teams that become able to reflect together tend to develop a systemic view, expand meaningful learning (double loop learning[3]) and increase performance capacity.

This exercise is not trivial, it requires the leader to put himself/herself in a position of facilitator of the learning of the followers, helping them to develop a new perspective on the context in which they find themselves. It may be easier to provide answers to complaints or problems, but this path has already been taken and we know the consequences, right?

Next time someone complains, what do you intend to do?

1. Kegan, R. and L.L. Lahey, How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation. 2001, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2. Heifetz, R.A., Leadership without easy answers. 1999, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
3. Argyris, C., Double-Loop Learning, Teaching, and Research. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2002. 1(2): p. 206-218.



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