Anyone in a management position gets to hear people complain. Parents, too. Sometimes they hear a lot of complaining.
The trouble with complaints, especially at work, is that people often raise the volume in order to be heard. Great managers (and parents) have that wonderful ability to make their reports feel heard without becoming swept up in the emotion or volume of the complaint. Here are three tips that can help reduce the volume and bring greater clarity to an effective response.
1. Acknowledge the emotion.
This is the most important thing. Some managers get bogged down in the swamp of anxiety and distress, which can only make it more difficult to identify the problem. So it can be helpful to start off acknowledging emotions first.
“I hear that you are angry about _____, what is the problem?”
Most people cannot address the real problem until they feel that their emotions have been validated. Ignoring over the emotional component – skipping straight to “what is the problem?” – will nearly always be less effective. Acknowledge the emotion and then address the problem. Sometimes the problem will be entirely about the emotion (e.g. hurt feelings, pride, anxiety).
2. Respect – but don’t indulge in – the problem.
As John Watson once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This speaks directly to the importance of respecting where people are.
When someone brings a problem to you, avoid judging it as “good” or “bad” or “big” or “small.” Regardless of your appraisal, it may represent a serious obstacle for them. Meet the problem and the person where they are. Do not, however, indulge yourself in the solution.
Managers are vulnerable to becoming intoxicated by “being the solution.” Resist this temptation. Assess whether the problem is reality-based or simply tethered to perception, and then decide whether it is within that person’s ability to solve. Avoid shaming or coming across as didactic; do not infantilize employees.
Ask good questions, help to clarify the real issues, and, if possible, allow them to own the solution. Empower them to grow and learn from the experience. (Bonus: they will take greater ownership of future problems since they’ll know you won’t just fix everything for them.) They will also have a clearer understanding of your expectations.
3. Provide the big picture.
Sometimes we need to be reminded about the big picture. If the problem isn’t germane to accomplishing the employee’s/team’s/organization’s big goal, then it may not be that important. Note that it helps if the company has set out clear, aspirational, and achievable goals that are widely recognized and understood.
Ask the question out loud – “How does solving this problem help us achieve our primary goal?” This can redirect the conversation or enhance understanding of the problem as it relates to the whole. This is especially true when the question is asked with genuine curiosity and respect instead of judgment.
In the end, the goal is communication, which can help all employees understand more clearly their relationship to the big picture. Managers that use these tools can be extremely effective in leading a company forward.