Mining the Gold of Employee Complaints

 -  2/28/07

Complaints abound in most organizations today.

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Incentives and Workplace Performance

Some HR professionals swear by incentives; others, at them. In the United States alone, organizations spend almost $120 billion annually on work-related incentive programs.

Complaints abound in most organizations today. There’s too much work to get done by too few people, and with the pace of business only increasing, it’s no surprise people feel as if they are drowning. Dramatic downsizings and the attendant flattened organizational structures haven’t helped matters.

A serious absence of trust in management, coupled with a sense of powerlessness, has driven many employee complaints underground, where they wreak havoc with morale and productivity. It’s one of the most compelling workplace challenges managers face today, and they must deal with it or accept the sobering reality they are sacrificing the productivity that is key to their organizations’ sustainable success.

Ignorance is Bliss, or is It?

It’s easy to ignore complaints. After all, every manager’s day is filled with demands that range from trivial to critical. The result? Firefighting has become the default mode. It’s also easy for a manager to minimize the importance of the complaints that do surface, going on the often-misguided assumption that the complaints are representative of only a minority of employees.

The truth is the complaints that surface are like the tip of an iceberg — the full scope of the issues lies beneath the surface. When managers are brutally honest with themselves, they often find they must reckon with their own sense of powerlessness and inadequacy in dealing with strong emotion, not to mention the implicit suggestion their leadership might need work. It takes both courage and tenacity to reach into the realm of employee complaints.

The Seduction of Dependency

Intrepid managers, armed with great intentions to be responsive and responsible leaders who reach out to gather employee complaints, might find themselves trapped by the seduction of dependency. Managers feel compelled to respond, and employees happily dump all their complaints on the managers, hoping they will solve for them. Managers feel proud to have doused yet another fire, and employees feel as if someone has listened to and taken care of them.

On the surface, this sounds plausible enough. Indeed, there are circumstances in which employee complaints are best placed squarely in the hands of the manager. The problem is the seduction of dependency forever traps managers in the position of being overly responsible for employees and employees in depending on managers to solve every problem. The consequence is both managers and employees have a built-in safety net. This safety net creates an organizational culture that might produce but doesn’t innovate. Employees sulk and submit, but they don’t really commit, and they don’t make the distinctive contributions that translate into more satisfied customers and increased market share.

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