How to Productively Complain to Change the Game
Updated: Aug 17
When I was 24 I had a roommate who got cell phone calls all hours of the night and it drove me crazy. We lived in a tiny apartment with paper-thin walls so naturally, a cell phone on high volume was easily heard.
I remember going into work one day and complaining to my cube neighbor about how tired I was due to being woken up every night by my roommate's cellphone.
And that is when the most invaluable skill of my life was given to me.
Instead of simply listening to my complaints he pulled out a piece of paper and began writing. He asked me more and more questions about the scenario until I finally figured out what he was doing. He was taking this complaint and writing up a solution for it. I was instantly intrigued and decided to play along.
We drew pictures, talked through the pros and cons, and ended up with 2 patent submissions.
I was working for a large corporation at the time that paid for patent ideas and within 3 weeks we were interviewed by the patent department and received checks for both submissions.
This one little complaint turned into a downpayment for my first house!
What was the skill I learned that day? Complaining can be a great idea generation tool if properly channeled. This took me years of trial and error to recreate as I first had to understand how to turn the tables on complaining.
What Usually Happens
When we complain with a friend or coworker what typically happens is a downward spiral into all things bad. We innocently start with one complaint and half an hour later we have complained about everything but the kitchen sink.
This actually sets our brains in motion to only seek out the negative in our life. Think laws of attraction gone bad.
In order to move out of the downward spiral and into a productive discussion, there are a few simple things you can do.
Set a timer
One of the simplest ways to stop the negative thought process is to limit your time with it. My rule of thumb is 15 minutes, any longer than that and you enter the complaint snowball (repeating yourself and grabbing some other complaints along the way).
It usually also helps to get all the emotions surrounding the complaint out. This sets everyone up for clear thinking.
Write it down
While in the 15 minutes of complaining you, as the manager, should write down the productive points brought up. (emotions aside)
I had an employee complain about the tediousness of creating purchase orders but in the same breath make an incredibly valid point. "why can't IT write us a program to upload these?" Boom! There it was! The productive point!
Within 3 months of this conversation, the upload tool was built and in production.
Ask Clarifying Questions
Repeat back what the other person said using only the items you wrote down then drill into clarifying questions that will help you generate a solution for the problem.
This step is also helpful if the original complaint is about a person. When you drill into clarifying questions you may find the person they are complaining about is centered around the responsibilities with a specific task. In this instance creating a RACI is most helpful.
Draw it out
See if you can take the issue and clarifying the answers and create an illustration. This will help both of you understand the complaint and where it lives in the ecosystem of a process. This typically spurs additional ideas as well.
Plan a future meeting to update your employee on the progress you've made in solving their complaint. You may need to talk to other organizations, coworkers, or even HR. Giving your employee a followup time makes them understand their importance to you while giving you a sense of urgency to do the legwork by the stated date.
When things seem out of your control
In certain instances, you may feel at the mercy of the system, politics, etc but it's important to note there is always something you can do. Go around the usual chain of command, make friends with a guy in IT who can do the work incognito for you, create the entire solution yourself, and present it to the proper team impromptu.
If you come to a team or individual with a solution already well thought out the likelihood of it getting shot down is much smaller.