Leadership, Resources

Complaints Deportment

I hate to complain but… Complainers and critics sap the energy of even the best of us. Even valid frustrations are things we’d mostly rather avoid. For those who are generally adverse to conflict it’s even harder. In one of my volunteer roles this past year I had to handle a number of complaints from different people. Some of them were directly at me personally, some at the organization generally. Some of them were presented in a basically positive manner, some weren’t. Some had legitimate concerns, some not so much. I didn’t handle all of them properly. Along the way I noticed a few things that I’m hoping to remember next time I deal with complaints. –Take a breath. My first response is almost always defensive. I need to pause, step away from the keyboard, put down the phone, grab a drink of water, walk around the block and review the rest of this post. A quick response is good, an immediate one is often disastrous. –Most complainers just want to be heard and acknowledged. They are willing to put up with something they don’t prefer, but they won’t tolerate being ignored. Taking the time to engage with the complaint is often all that is required to resolve the matter. –Listen for the useful truth buried in the griping. Even antagonistic people often have something of value for you to hear. Digging through the tone to find the legitimate concern requires an attitude adjustment from defensive to receptive. A little humility can let you learn from even the least appropriate attacks. –Trust your team. If the complaint is significant, the complainer is passionate, or you find yourself frustrated by it all; you need a trusted colleague to join the process. Copy them on all messages for your protection and the organization’s. You may need to vent to them and have them read over your replies before you send them. And you may need to hear them tell you where you may be wrong. –Be decisive. If you’ve made an error admit it, apologise, and seek to rectify it if possible. If not, simply state the key rationale for the decision, offer to follow up at their request, and leave it. Waffling never helps. Most people would rather accept something they don’t agree with than be left hanging while you sit on the fence. –Draw the line. After more than a couple emails or voice messages without resolution suggest a face to face meeting to talk things through, it’s a great test of their level of commitment to the issue. If someone is eager to criticise from a distance but unwilling to sit down to figure things out there is no point in continuing. There’s too much risk of misunderstanding and nothing to be gained. –Let it go. After each message or conversation you need to be prepared to never hear back. Unfortunately many people won’t make the (simple) effort to acknowledge your engagement with them if they are (in some way) satisfied with it. The clean closure that you want often doesn’t happen. It’s frustrating, but it’s a fact of leadership. Handling complaints is an opportunity to reinforce your Vision and Values. When you do it well you build clarity and trust that can bring lasting loyalty. Very few of us actually enjoy receiving the angry emails, but we can learn to respond in ways that are truly helpful to the person who complains and to our organization. What works for you?