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The Reality of Workplace Complaints

Updated: Mar 26

By: Dr. Brittany Castonguay XX May 2023 #Management

Managing complaints is an aspect of management, but that does not mean management must be afraid of complaints. Some complaints are positive, while others can be destructive. Managers need to identify what type of complaints they are handling and process them appropriately before a call for help becomes destructive.

Workplace Complaints
Complaints Operate Like Broken Glass

Complaints can be the stream of conscious and unconscious thought. The more we are aware of our unconscious biases, the better equipped we are to manage complaints and assess the support our employees need. Before we discuss the four types of complaints a manager may encounter, let’s first discuss unconscious bias and its importance in management. An unconscious bias is a set of stereotypes or prejudices we may be unaware of. An unconscious bias is a set of blinders that we are internally blind towards. If you take a moment to reflect on situations in the past that have irritated you or made you act irrationally, you may be faced with an unconscious bias.

The great thing about growth and self-awareness is that we can grow beyond our biases by realizing they exist and are real. Each of us has one or more unconscious biases; we are often unaware until the blinders are removed, and we can see them clearly. To grow as a manager and leaders, we must accept that everyone has an unconscious bias, which is okay. That makes us human.

As leaders, we can become aware of these and purposedly learn to mitigate them.

Some of the complaints we face in management may result from unconscious biases. Employees have their own struggles, and we can help manage these complaints by being the leader they need us to be. Managers can be influential leaders by assisting employees in working through their complaints by recognizing the type of complaint they are dealing with. This includes greatly appreciating how unconscious biases can negatively impact work environments.

Types of Workplace Complaints

Of the four types of complaints, there are productive complaining, venting, chronic complaining, and malicious complaining. Beginning with productive complaining is a benign type of complaining that employees use to voice opinions about potential issues. Productive complaints should be heard in the right setting because they are intentionally meant to help managers see an aspect of the operation that they would not have insight into otherwise. When productive complaints are taken seriously and treated urgently, they can avoid becoming larger problems later on.

Disappointment - Workplace Complaints
Disappointment In Leadership

The second type of complaint a manager may experience is known as venting. Venting is typically the result of pent-up frustration or stress. Venting helps an individual feel heard and acknowledged, but it can have negative impacts. For example, venting can be detrimental to the listener, and it may be viewed negatively versus productive complaining, which may be accepted by the listener more positively. When dealing with a venting employee, it helps to acknowledge that the employee is distressed and set boundaries for the conversation.

Do they want to be heard, or do they want you to take action?

Venting is often the result of a series of events that were not handled and have accumulated over time. Managing a venting employee should be done in a quiet environment where the manager can focus entirely on the employee and their concerns. By setting boundaries with a venter, the manager can establish outcomes that the employee will agree with. This is also a situation where unconscious biases can come into play if the employee is unaware of the triggers that resulted in the venting and displace negative emotions and stress on the manager.

Unfortunately, there is a type of employee known as the chronic complainer. These individuals tend to have a pessimistic view of the world, and complaining is part of their nature. This may be an unconscious bias, but addressing a chronic complainer can be difficult. Chronic complainers are harmful energy sources that can be difficult to approach, and nothing seems to satisfy them. Chronic complaining can destroy work dynamics and leave those around them feeling irritable.

Managers can manage chronic complaints by setting clear expectations and having reoccurring feedback sessions with them. By building a rapport with this type of employee, managers can carefully broach the subject of their relentless negativity and create a space where the employee feels heard. Not all employees who become chronic complainers do so overnight. Chronic complaining can be the result of a toxic work environment or burnout. As a manager, we must take these employees seriously to ensure they feel heard and validate them when their complaints have value.

Disgruntled Employee - workplace complaints
Malicious Complaints Can Wreck Havoc

The last type of complaint managers will often deal with are malicious complaints. A malicious complaint is destructive and designed to hurt, backstab or cause gossip about another person or group of people. These lead to toxicity in the workplace and should never be tolerated. The intent of the malicious complaint is meant to cause harm and should be handled directly by management.

Some malicious complaints result from unconscious biases; if true, this does not negate the negative impact malicious complaints can have on the workforce. We are all responsible for our actions, and no amount of blinders can mitigate our actions' impact on others.

Why do workplace complaints matter?

Managers have the uncomfortable responsibility of handling all types of complaints, big or small. By doing so, managers will enhance trust and unity among their teams. Employees will feel heard and acknowledged, and rapport between employees and managers will increase. There are some small, active listening tips managers can employ to help employees feel heard and validated.

  1. Show gratefulness and respect to the employee for coming to you with this information.

  2. Stop all matters and focus solely on the employee in a quiet, private space.

  3. Discuss the matter with the employee and determine what they want to see as an outcome of this complaint.

  4. If necessary, advise them if the complaint needs to be reported or if it can be handled at a lower level.

  5. Follow up with the employee as needed and be interested in their wellbeing.

  6. Most importantly, be sincere and honest.

Managing complaints can be complex and often are the last thing anyone wants to deal with. It is best to handle any complaint up front to diffuse the situation before it becomes a toxic issue that requires external support. In any management position, complaints will arise, and humans will have disagreements. Leadership must support and mitigate complaints to the best of our abilities and build a team dynamic that can thrive.

SHRI and Workplace Complaints

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