What do employee complaints tell you about agility?

Employee complaints: you can’t live with them, can’t live without ‘em!  But what do they tell you about your organization?   It has been my observation that people complain when they don’t have control over a situation.  If they had control, they would do something about it rather than complain.  Any situation that has the potential to impact their results has the potential to be a complaint.  This is explains why most complaints are about people and things outside of their immediate workgroup.  So   the challenge as a manager is to understand what’s causing the lack of control, is it the organization or the capabilities of the employee?

Some typical complaints:

  A product manager might say “if only those developers knew what they were doing we wouldn’t   have defects and we’d be on time”

  A software developer may say “Those people in support are clueless, they ask me to look at every   simple problem and I’m trying to build the next product”

  Managers may say “I wish my employees were more committed to our business goals”

In each of these cases, the individual is impacted by another party and they don’t feel as if they have a way to improve the situation.   In a lean sense, this is probably resulting in wasted time.  So the level of complaining, or more precisely, the lack of complaints is a good indicator of how agile and lean your organization operates.

With the blizzard in the Northeast US fresh in my mind, let’s use snowfall and driving as an example.  Someone who has poor snow removal, a rear-wheel drive car, and is not comfortable driving in the white stuff is more likely to complain about the event than the person who has a large snow blower, a 4 wheel drive truck, and has taken winter driving classes.   This is the case where the individual’s capabilities and preparation give them control over the situation and they are more effective at dealing with it.

So this leads me to another point, when employees complain they are often expressing their own limitations.   The limiitations could be in the form of technical skills to implement a solution, or the interpersonal skills to negotiate a solution with the party that can resolve it.  When talking to employees about their complaints, try to make them aware that problems are an opportunity to learn new skills.  It is very telling how they respond to this challenge.

If your organization is very specialized, it could lead to lower morale if people feel that it is not part of their charter to step out of their job descriptions to resolve an issue.   The challenge to become agile requires that you break down specialization and promote fluidity.

Another reason to reduce complaints is that they become an organizational habit.  New employees can learn that the expectation is to complain, not actually resolve the problem.  I am not saying sweep the problems under the rug to avoid complaints.  I am saying take action to improve employee satisfaction and reduce the negative chatter.

Finally, teach the organization how to confront problems effectively.  If there is a problem outside of your control, provide training on how to approach others about problems and work to a solution.  This will have tremendous payback in the long run.

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