A knock on the door interrupts your focus. It’s one of your managers who sticks his head in the door and says, “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate this job. I can’t wait to come in to work every day.”
Does that ever happen? Probably not. No CEO ever hears those compliments. Instead, they hear something else…
The job of a CEO can be a thankless one. When things go well, people happily accept the credit themselves; when they aren’t going well, they look up the organizational chart at the highest point on the chart (you!) to affix their blame, and they’re eager to share their “insights” (read: complaints) with you whenever they get their chance.
I used to think that complaints and complainers were among the worst time-sucks in my day. I would even go out of my way to avoid the people who I knew were complainers because it was frustrating to hear their complaints and that negativity would impact my day.
However I’ve since come to realize that complainers are among the most valuable people in the organization, if you take a different approach.
Why Complainers Are Among The Most Valuable People In Your Company
Every organization has two types of people working at it…
- People who don’t say anything. They show up and do their work. These are the trusted workers (and probably the ones you value most because they do their job without complaining).
- People who do say something any chance they get. They are the ones I’ve labelled above as “the complainers”. They show up and do their work but they also highlight things they don’t like (about their job, their coworkers, or the company) and they’ll tell you all their complaints at any opportunity.
It can be tempting to prefer to have desks filled with non-complainers; with the people who don’t say anything and just show up to do their work. However, the people who don’t say anything when they are working are also the ones who don’t say anything when they leave your employ for another company.
And when those silent employees don’t say anything—while working or when quittingؙ—how will you know how to make your company better?
Complainers (although they can seem overwhelmingly negative) can be bought into the company are simply vocalizing the ways that they think the company could be better.
It’s a hard truth to learn: Complainers are valuable because they are literally handing you a list of things that are potentially broken in your company, and instead of quitting in silence they are telling you the problems and offering you the chance to fix them.
I’m Not Crazy! Here’s What To Do With Complainers And Their Complaints
You may think I’m crazy while you read this because you’re thinking about all the negativity they express, or about some of the really petty things that some complainers complain about.
Well, it’s true that many complainers can be time-sucks and negative; and it’s true that some complainers can have petty complaints. But not all. And more crucially, complainers and their complaints often have valid points but they simply aren’t expressing them effectively. Often, a complaint is an opportunity wrapped in negativity.
When you receive a complaint, don’t just disregard it as “yet another complaint from yet another complainer”. Instead take a moment and triage it:
- If the complaint is important of course you would act on it right away, no matter who brought it to your attention
- If the complaint seems petty, perhaps you simply need to look deeper at fixing an underlying issue that the complainer is really trying to explain
- If the complaint seems petty and you can’t find the deeper issue that needs fixing, use this as an opportunity to train the complainer to discern what are important problems and to problem-solve more effectively
Every problem that a complainer brings to you will fall into one of these three categories—you’ll either deal with it; you’ll dig deeper to deal with it; or you’ll educate the complainer. When you take this approach, you no longer get caught up in the frustrating negativity of the complaint.
Two Ways To Be Cautious With This Approach
By using this complaint-triage approach, you become a CEO who listens and who acts to create a better company for everyone. (It also helps you to make the mindset switch so that you don’t dread those encounters with complainers anymore.)
However, you need to be cautious:
- Be cautious that you aren’t only listening to the complainers. Don’t let the squeaky wheel become the only wheel you listen to. Actively seek out the quiet employees, as well as the ones who are quitting without ever having said anything in the past, and find out what they’d like to see done differently in the company. Become a CEO that listens to everyone.
- Be cautious that you allow complainers to complain without fostering an environment that encourages complaints. Encourage your team to follow-up with their direct reports (instead of running complaints up the organizational chart to you), and train your team on individual problem-solving skills. While that won’t eliminate every complaint, it will help to address some of the complaints that made their way to you.
Ultimately, avoid feeding the negativity and encouraging complaints. Listen positively and keep the emphasis on problem solving.
The busy work of a CEO may not seem like it has room for complainers. However, complainers are valuable because they are bought into your company enough to complain (instead of quitting), and they are vocal enough to bring the problem to your attention. Sure their complaints may not always seem (on the surface) to be meaningful but you can mine them for the real value they contain and create positive change in your company.
You’ll never have a company that is free of complainers… But that’s okay; maybe you don’t want that. Next time you have a complainer interrupt your work, pause for a moment and consider what value you can derive from their feedback. Remember that every complaint is an opportunity wrapped in negativity.