Recent mass layoffs most directly affected departing employees, but there have also been negative impacts on retained workers. In many cases, workloads increased, and reorganizations have created unfamiliar structures and dynamics both within teams and across entire organizations. With those added burdens and shifts comes an increase in grievances.
I often coach managers and leaders on how to field complaints respectfully and productively, but there is also an art to the complaint itself. The word “complaint” has an antagonistic connotation; complainers are often perceived, fairly or not, as whining or spreading negativity. In truth, complaining can be constructive or destructive, depending on how the complainer approaches their role. To make any progress, it’s critical for the person pointing out issues to work as a collaborator. Thoughtful solutions are always received more positively than simple venting.
Rachel Feintzeig’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal provides an excellent primer on ars querimoniam, or the art of the complaint. I choose to use this fancy-sounding Latin phrase because it emphasizes the importance of rhetorical strategies. The term “ars” can mean “craft,” in the sense of skilled work, and its tactful, solution-oriented finesse distinguishes this approach from the grumbling usually associated with complaints. Feintzeig consulted executive coach Dina Denham Smith, who says that employees with complaints need “to approach their bosses armed with potential solutions” and to “stick to the facts,” demonstrating “the impact the problem is having on the business.” In other words, strive to drain the emotional heat from the complaint and focus instead on the problem as an opportunity for positive change.
The article also recommends laying “out what you have tried so far to show you have taken initiative” and to “pitch your proposed fix, but leave the door open for input.” There is nothing more counterproductive than an unyielding complainer who can only see one way out of a problem. This issue is exacerbated when they haven’t tried anything else. Saying merely “this isn’t working” does nothing to define the specifics of the problem and fails to identify the next steps toward a solution. A successful complaint demonstrates that, within the capacity of your position, you have been experimenting with various potential fixes. Such an approach signals a solutions-oriented mindset. Furthermore, when a worker solicits input from their manager and remains open to other options, they’re also more likely to get buy-in for acting on the problem.
In addition to minimizing negativity, Feintzeig and Jim Detert, a University of Virginia business professor and author, also recommend avoiding hyperbole and inflexible language. No problem only has two sides. Dichotomous thinking defeats innovation and the likelihood of cooperation from leadership. Detert discourages words like “obviously” and “never,” as in: “Obviously, this has never worked, and we need to do something else.” Such stark phrasing unintentionally communicates narrow-mindedness and the refusal to entertain different solutions that might be preferable.
There is an art to the complaint, but we are all human. Occasionally, we must find immediate emotional outlets. Expend that more hostile energy during a commute alone in the car, as one of Feintzeig’s interviewees recommends, or in the shower before work, rehearsing the points you want to make and defusing the frustration that might interfere with problem-solving.
Most importantly, take the perspective of the person you’re approaching with your complaint: they’re also experiencing the stress of new responsibilities resulting from a shifting or shrinking workforce. If you were in their shoes, what would make you most receptive to what you have to say?
At its best, problem-solving should always transcend the mere complaint. It should work quickly toward a meaningful collaboration, regardless of which side of the conversation you are on. In TGC’s leadership classes, I stress the importance of many of the points made above, particularly the need to understand and entertain the other person’s point of view before any criticism or resistance arises. Whether receiving or delivering news of opportunities, the same rules apply.