The Art of Complaining

Complaining properly is an art that needs more attention.  It’s a vital part of what organizations must address to maximize their ability to find out about and resolve problems. While much has been written about welcoming concerns and not retaliating against the messengers, less has been written about what should be the corresponding responsibilities and behaviors of those individuals who should and  do bring issues forward.
Legal standards define what constitutes a protected concern or complaint whether the issues relate to safety, discrimination, harassment, financial practices or other matters.  Recent Supreme Court rulings in the employment area, for example,  clearly indicate that what constitutes a valid complaint in terms of what’s said or how it’s presented is to be interpreted broadly in favor of the charging party. Such protections are intended to encourage individuals to come forward so problems can be identified and fixed. There are also  counterbalances — complaining with threats of violence, or through fabricated allegations or evidence may block protection, irrespective of the issue being raised.
But these legal safeguards  don’t go to the heart of what I see as an overlooked  issue –  how does a complainant present a concern in a way that makes it more rather than less certain that it will be properly heard and  given prompt internal attention leading  to analysis and, where appropriate, correction. Ultimately, whether individuals come forward willingly and sooner rather than too late is linked to organizational values, culture and leadership,  not just hotlines and processes.   This is no simple task as evidence is mounting that for many cultural,  psychological and perhaps biological reasons the status quo is to keep quiet rather than raise issues no matter the risks and the potential for catastrophe.
Still,  complaints are often ignored or dismissed because of the way they are presented to a human listener or reader.  What a complainant says and how it is said may cause the recipient to diminish its significance. Fixing this requires building behavioral communication skills for potential complainants, not just giving them information on legal protections and complaint systems.
Years ago in working with troubled nuclear sites where individuals were either unwilling to raise safety concerns or faced retaliation if they did so, my colleagues and  I interviewed managers and employees to understand what causes individuals to bring issues forward and for the issues to then be examined and given proper consideration. We looked at the issue beyond the narrow focus of whether complaints were factually accurate or legally protected considering instead whether they were raised in the first place and then led to thorough review. We spoke to different groups “anonymously” –we did not know their names or what they did but simply whether they were in managerial or other roles.
Employees told us how they wanted their leaders to act to encourage them to come forward and then how to act when they actually did. We developed a behavioral model to encourage these results. Likewise, leaders and first line managers gave us insight into a behavioral model makes it more likely that they’ll listen non judgmentally when actions are brought forward and then take action to look into problems. Organizations applying both models  help assure that more complaints will be give the consideration they warrant and identify issues before they lead to catastrophic results. Key action steps and skills for complainants are:

  • Be specific – identify a problem with clarity so that the issue is understood. It’s not useful to say, “I think there’s a safety problem but I can’t say what it is.” Or, “I think I’m being treated unfairly but I just don’t know how to put it into words.” Instead, those raising concerns need to be able to state: “Here is where I think there is a safety problem” and, “I’m seeing these signs,” or, “Those around me are saying things about my ethnicity that make me uncomfortable.”
  • Explain the problem in a factual rather than accusatory manner and don’t wrap it in an unlawful or unethical motivation. Explain the issue but don’t do so in an accusatory and personal way in terms of what is said or how it’s said in terms of body language and tone of voice.
  • Give the recipient a chance to listen – ask for a time to meet with the person to whom you need to speak in private.  If it’s a serious issue, give the leader time to listen and absorb what you have to say instead of  hearing it in a passing conversation which diminishes its importance.
  • Where possible, bring in a solution – explain the problem and suggest as best as possible a simple solution. “I think we have a cooling problem; here’s what may solve it.”
  • Ask for a general time when there will be a response and then follow-up – a concern should be important and of continuing significance to the one raising it as well as the organization and individuals receiving it.

When we recognize the harm and risk that overlooked hazards or improper behavior can cause in nuclear, healthcare, industrial and other environments, it’s clear that we must give employees, not just leaders,  the skills they need to help  properly raise and solve problems. This is not just a matter of regulatory compliance but rather an issue of risk management, workplace and public safety, and business survival.

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