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Published on March 22, 2018

Don’t shoot the messenger – examine the message

Every leader receives complaints or constructive feedback every now and then. Sometimes the feedback is concrete: ”my pay is too low”. Sometimes its vague: ”we need more openness”. Sometimes it may even be alarming: “we are being managed by fear”

A good leader should take all feedback seriously. But it is sometimes hard be such a good leader: some people complain about almost anything, some feedback appears to have no connection to reality. Sometimes the leader may think he or she just has more important things to do.

Nevertheless, every piece of employee feedback or complaint has a reason. The reason may be totally different from what is being said. “I’m dissatisfied with my pay” may mean “I’m dissatisfied with my pay” or “My spouse treated me badly this morning” or “I’m dissatisfied with my job content” or “I’m considering joining another company” or “I need your attention” or almost anything else.

As a rather rational person, I am probably quite bad at handling complaints of people that work for me. In my attempts to improve I have found following “feedback handling recipe” useful.

  1. Listen to the feedback carefully. Ask clarifying questions, if needed.
  2. Figure out if the feedback is fact-based.
  3. Find out why this person, rather than someone else is bringing the issue up.
  4. Engage in intellectual discussion about the solution.
  5. Agree what actions should be taken, if any, and who is responsible for them.

Listening carefully before reacting in any other way is the key to success. When people come to talk to you they may be excited, anxious, or stressful. Quite often, what they say is not the fact of the matter but some symptom or conclusion.

Once you believe you’ve understood the issue, ask yourself and your counterpart whether there are any facts that support the existence of the issue. If facts exist, the issue is probably real. If facts don’t exist it may mean that you haven’t found the facts yet or that the issue is not real at all.

Remember, though, that feelings of people are always real even when not based on facts. Several persons have complained that I don’t inform them about important matters. Sometimes this has really been the case but more often these people have concentrated on their e-mails in the meetings where those important matters were discussed. Lesson learnt: if you take a feeling or a false conclusion as a fact your corrective actions are likely to be wrong.

Some people tend to project their own feelings to the rest of the team. “Everyone here thinks your management style is too authoritative” may mean exactly that but it may also mean “I don’t like your management style.” Spend some time to find out whether the person you are talking with is a messenger or an observer on behalf of someone else or if he or she is discussing a personal matter. If he or she is bringing a message instead of “other people” be bold enough to ask who these “other people” are and whether it would be ok to invite them to join the discussion. I have noticed that quite often these “other people” do not exist at all or that they have a completely different point of view.

If you and the other person have behaved professionally so far, you have already had a fair amount of intellectual discussion. I mean discussion that aims at creating better shared understanding and verifying it by facts. The next level is an intellectual discussion about the solution or about the actions to be taken. Be open-minded. This conversation may lead to a breakthrough idea. It may lead to a conclusion that the issue is not that important at all. It may also result in your counterpart withdrawing from the discussion.

Sometimes people complain just for the fun of complaining, sometimes they complain because they want attention, but usually they complain for a reason. Only those that complain for a real reason are likely to engage in intellectual discussion with you. Obviously, you need to be ready to engage in a genuine, honest, and intelligent discussions first.

Come up with different decisions you could choose from, consider their consequences, think of who would be involved and affected. Make your decision. Then ask yourselves, considering the other things your team should be working on, whether this is something that deserves your effort and attention right now.

In roughly one case of two it is the complainer himself or herself that should take the corrective action. Be prepared to support but also be prepared to provide the person with a graceful exit from the situation. Problems tend to lose their significance once the person realizes it is not “someone else” who should take action.