Complaints: How Top Managers Manage Feedback

Complaints are a grievance issue, not a management feedback issue. Knowing the difference is important to becoming a strong manager.

Why do weak managers confuse complaints with reporting a problem? How can we train managers to build teams with an effective flow of information?

The Difference

Reporting a problem is feedback that something isn’t working or conditions are deteriorating.  At the same time, complaints are feedback that something is unsatisfactory, but complaints come more in the form of a personal grievance or personal criticism.

People who report problems seek to prevent or correct problems.  Complainers seek an audience for their issues or resolution to personal problems.

Weak Managers

One trait of weak managers is that they don’t want to hear anything negative. They are too busy, too distracted, or too emotionally off-balance to deal with problems.

This management style lends itself to negative, sometimes hostile management relationships with people reporting to these weak managers.

Furthermore, these managers don’t learn about the information they need to know to manage their responsibilities.

How to Train Managers to Deal with Complaints and Problems

Strong managers create a list of conditions that they need to know.  When I was a bridge officer, my commanding officer had a list of standing orders.  These were the things that the bridge officers needed to tell the captain to keep the ship safe.

In other conditions, the commanding officer had temporary orders for a scheduled event.  For example, call the captain when the admiral arrives today.

However, complaints were never in the plan of the day.  The captain didn’t want to hear that the soup was not to your satisfaction or that someone cut you off in line at the ship’s store. He welcomed feedback.  However, he wasn’t interested in personal, negative issues.

In a business environment, managers may want the production supervisor to contact them when they first see a sign that production may start to fall behind.

Another condition might be that a manager wants to know as soon as anyone sees that a project might come in over budget.

A key part of notifying management is to tell them before it is too late to make corrections.

Have a Format for Reporting Problems

Employees need to know how to report problems.

Some managers simply want a notification when a potential problem appears. Other managers may want recommendations when a person is reporting a problem.

In every case, smart managers train employees how to present problems effectively.

Keep It Simple.

When reporting a problem, don’t jumble the report with other information. Just state the problem and, when expected, a solution to the problem.

Have Priorities for Problems

Smart managers may have conditions on when and how to present a problem.

Highest priority are the wake-me-up problems. In the middle of the night, wake me up before the roof starts leaking or before the equipment breaks down.

Wake-me-up directives typically apply to potentially catastrophic problems.

The Safe and Open Environment

Managers should show an open, receptive attitude.  As a business owner, I tried to create as free and safe an environment as possible.  My employees felt safe in knowing when they could make decisions and solve problems.  Also, they felt safe to tell me when a problem would arise.

The best managers assure that employees no one will criticize them for making a mistake in calling out a problem.  Everyone has 20/20 hindsight.