Complaints not always as dire as they seem

March 30, 1992|By Gerald Graham | Gerald Graham,Knight-Ridder News Service

Recently, a worried manager commented to me, "I think I have a real morale problem in my department."

"Why do you think that?" I responded.

"A couple of members of my staff are really complaining about some new policies I've initiated," he replied.

Although the manager was considering rather dramatic changes in a few of his policies, he agreed to first conduct an employee-satisfaction survey. To his surprise, the vast majority of the employees were very supportive of his new policies.

I believe that many managers, much like the one in this example, may overreact to isolated employee complaints. Consider the following when listening to complaints.

* Oral persuasion. Because some employees are very articulate, they can overstate gripes in a persuasive fashion. Two or three complaining employees in a meeting of 20 people can make it appear that the entire group is very dissatisfied.

Articulate complainers, without meaning to, may discourage others in the group from expressing their opinions. Less articulate group members think they are no match for the verbal skills of a complainer, and they allow the complainer to appear to be representing them.

* Prevalent complaints. Some complaining occurs in almost all departments under almost any conditions. Even when teamwork is excellent, performance is high and the leader is popular, some employees will still complain.

Complaints do not always register dissatisfaction. Rather, there is a tendency, particularly among very capable individuals, to think of alternate ways and "what ifs." This communication sounds like complaining, although the employees may not intend it as such.

* Complaint factor. I believe most people have a complaint tendency only slightly related to their environment. I have interviewed complaining employees who, for various reasons, changed organizations. Remarkably, the nature and level of their complaints remained similar, even though conditions changed.

Employee dissatisfaction is a very serious matter, but managers should be careful not to overreact to normal complaining.

Management quiz

Identify whether you agree or disagree with each of the following.

Employee complaints:

1. Sometimes seem more serious than they are.

2. Are a part of normal human interaction.

3. Sometimes cause an overreaction from managers.

4. May be the result of only one or two dissatisfied people.

5. Are a part of almost all departments.

6. Do not always signal dissatisfaction.

7. Are not always reduced by granting employees' wishes.

8. Should always be listened to.

9. May not be representative of the total group.

10. May sometimes represent a very serious problem.

Although not all would agree, count agree to be the correct response to all statements. Seven or more correct equals an above average score.

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