Complaints Are Gifts

“When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty obtained that wise men look for.”
— Milton, Aeropagitica
This essay was originally published as the introduction to Good Work—Edition Nº 32 on Holloway.com.
Soundtrack:
Songlines by The Derek Trucks Band

In the first few years I was managing people it felt like everyone had something to complain about. The grievances poured into a sad swimming pool of injustice. I did my best to address the issues, but it doesn’t take many complaints at once to overwhelm even the most well-intentioned managers. I quickly came to dread complaints, becoming fast friends with phrases like, “Here we go again.”

Struggling, my co-founder suggested I work with an executive coach. The coach I found, Christina, encouraged me to think of complaints as gifts. Because when someone on the team complains, what’s really happening is that they’re standing up for something. They’re saying, “Something’s going on here and I am not okay with it.”

Complaints are rarely delivered in crisp and clear language. The aggrieved might not call direct attention to systemic issues, but they’re like canaries calling out symptoms of what those deep issues might be. The actual words of a complaint may appear to be about one surface-level thing, but a good manager can tell when they’re a sign that there’s a much larger issue. As a manager, it’s critical to listen to the gripes, even when they seem small.

When we don’t know how to solve something, we can revert to our child-selves—turn up the volume, say the same thing over and over again, hoping we’ll be heard. Don’t fall prey to the mistake of interpreting this behavior as whining or a desire to shirk responsibility. Instead, look at each complaint as an expression of pain, someone asking that you listen and help them solve a problem, together.

Finally, remember that each complaint is someone doing their best to improve the team. If you trust that they are in this with you, you need to listen.

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