If employees complain about everything, then why listen to their complaints? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that the leader closest to the complainers has a compelling need to listen in order to extract the critical snippets of signal from the snarky background noise.
There’s a generally-accepted aphorism in the military that every soldier has ‘an inalienable right to b***h’. It’s a deeply-entrenched part of the military experience – a grunt’s work is dirty, strenuous, often dangerous, and frequently pointless. Whitewashing rocks? Marching aimlessly in circles? Standing ‘guard duty’ over empty buildings? It’s all that and more. A squaddie’s life is often a frustrating one, which inevitably manifests in a biting stream of invective when he or she finally gets a chance to stand down. In its own way, idle complaining is a form of healthy venting – it’s a way to cope with one’s insane working conditions while still getting the job done. As a young corporal, I was taught by my senior sergeants to respect my soldiers’ ‘right’ to complain about everything… so long as they didn’t hesitate to obey. Complaining was fine; insubordination was unacceptable.
You may or may not encounter this phenomenon where you work; it largely depends on your office culture. I’ve been in offices where every management announcement triggered a fusillade of derisive comments. I’ve also been in offices where any hint of disrespect for management could trigger reprimands or even termination. Every office is different… but people, by and large, are the same everywhere. People cope with frustration by complaining. It’s normal. Also. the sillier an idea seems to be, the more likely someone is to make a clever joke about it that puts the silliness in perspective.
If you take a closer look at this, you’ll see that there’s more to it than just reflexive venting. Often, a person making a snide joke about how some new management idea ‘isn’t going to work’ is trying (consciously or not) to bring a problem to management’s attention. They realize that something is wrong with the idea as it’s been presented. That doesn’t mean that the entire idea is doomed to failure; only that what was communicated about the idea appears to contain a glaring flaw. Hopefully, that flaw has already been addressed… but if it hasn’t, then it needs to be dealt with.
A savvy manager needs to take heed of these warnings and address them on the spot: he or she either explains what’s missing, or investigate the assertion to determine whether or not there’s a legitimate problem. Getting angry with a complainer isn’t productive. Snapping at a complainer because they pointed out an obvious problem tells everyone within earshot that you’re irrational – you weren’t smart enough to notice the obvious problem yourself, and you’re too proud to deal with it once it’s been pointed out. That’s the mark of an incompetent (and potentially abusive) leader. 
On the other hand, if you listen to every complaint that comes out of the cubicle farm, you’ll find yourself paralyzed and ineffective. Every new idea gets booed by the troops simply because it’s new. Giving heed to every criticism bogs you down until you’re terminally stalled. That’s the mark of an incompetent (and cowardly) leader. So, you’re damned if you listen to criticism and you’re damned if you ignore it. What’s a leader to do?
I submit that an effective leader can only save herself from this paradox by embracing it. Here’s what I’m on about:
I served part time in a National Guard infantry battalion while I was in university to cover my costs.  The weekend that I pinned on my non-com stripes and got promoted to squad leader,  I chanced upon a sign that some snarky sparky had taped to the door to our signals platoon office that read: ‘If Caesar wants to run this cohort, then Caesar can sign for the swords and the shields!’ That message stuck with me because I grokked its message immediately: upper management (the writer had insinuated) was too removed from life in that work centre to be able to make good decisions about how it should function; therefore, if the boss wanted to micromanage the section, then he needed to live down there and take responsibility for the consequences of his decisions. It made sense. 
I argue that the unknown signaler’s subtle dig ought to resonate with everyone that holds a senior leadership billet, everywhere: if you don’t have intimate knowledge about the internal workings of a group, team, or department, then be you need to be circumspect when making assumptions about how that organisation functions. Your great ideas – which seem brilliant at fifty thousand feet – might not work down in the work-a-day trenches. Resistance to new ideas isn’t necessarily a disrespectful rejection of your authority; it might instead be a valuable sign that there are additional factors that need to be addressed in your grand plan before it can be executed.
One poignant example of this happened to me back when I was the head of IT for a public sector outfit. I led that group for over ten years. Every two years, some ambitious git in Washington D.C. would decide that we should centralize all of our disparate networks and IT organizations into one national or global endeavour. During one of these ambitious (and, ultimately, doomed) campaigns our campus got put on the deployment list to be first in our region to make the cutover to the ‘new’ support model. An amazingly arrogant project manager visited our campus to deliver the ‘good’ news about our pending assimilation, and got bent out of shape when we laughed at his plan.
We had a week of meetings with this manager and his crisp, young IT contractors. We listened to their sales pitch, read their slides, ignored their condescending platitudes, and tried to be polite. Towards the end of their road show, I lost my patience with the plan; I felt drained listening to the team’s fantasy stories about why we should all ‘embrace the inevitable future of global service delivery’ and agree to surrender all of our control over our production systems to antoher agency. I finally reached my limit and told the bloke in charge that his ‘new’ service delivery model was fundamentally flawed, and couldn’t be made to work without significant re-tooling.
I figured that I knew how the project manager was going to react to my complaint, and he didn’t disappoint. He turned ever-so-slightly scarlet and scowled at me as if I’d belittled his manhood. He didn’t have the authority to silence me in my own conference room (although it was clear that he was dying to). Instead, he asked me (through clenched teeth) why I’d say such an outrageous thing.
‘Let’s go over your plan logically,’ I said. ‘The first phase of this involves securing the people that you need to staff the global support office. To get the bodies, you plan to terminate all of the Tier 1 tech support agents at each campus, nationwide, and then transfer their funding to your central service desk.’
The project manager agreed that this was the plan. He couldn’t create new billets; so, in order to stand up the new group, they needed to terminate one existing employee for every new billet that they needed. Zero-sum staffing.
‘Once your new central service desk is established, all of our users will have to call your toll-free number to request tech support. There won’t be a local service desk anymore; just some back office data centre techs.’
The PM nodded, and started to relax. That was nearly word-for-word what they’d presented.
‘Let’s say we’re on board with this. We transfer our people and functions to your new organization. It’s done.’
Another nod. ‘We’ll have all the tools that we’ll need to take care of any problem that might arise,’ the PM said.
I smiled. ‘So, let’s say that my senior executive comes back from a business trip and forgets to reconnect his Ethernet cable to his laptop. He can’t log into the network, can’t connect to the mail server, etc. He’s dead in the water and he doesn’t know how to troubleshoot his PC. Under your new model, he’ll dial 1-800-GET-HELP and sit in the call queue waiting for one of your remote support techs to get around to servicing him.’
The PM coloured slightly and scowled. I held up a hand to stop him from interrupting.
‘Eventually, your call centre tech picks up the phone and runs through his troubleshooting checklists… but none of those corrective actions work because the problem exists at level 1, and there’s no tool on earth (yet) that can remotely re-connect a physical cable. So, the call centre tech kicks the problem up to a Tier 2 engineer to sort out.’
I could hear the PM grinding his teeth while he assembled his retort, but he let me continue.
‘So, my executive is offline and ineffective while he waits for a call-back from your Tier 2 group. Which, you said in your slides, would be “within 24 hours”, right?’
The PM didn’t speak. One of his contractors checked his hardcopy of the slide desk and offered that their actual response time would be ‘within one work day’ from the time the ticket was escalated.
I made a dismissive gesture and said,‘Your Tier 2 engineer calls my executive and – assuming you can reach him; he’s a busy guy – wastes more of his time trying to remotely control his PC. Which won’t solve the problem… because the PC is still un-plugged. So now, your Tier 2 guy is thwarted, an that trouble ticket goes where, exactly?’
The PM still hadn’t caught on. I might have felt sorry for him, had he not been such an outrageously offensive person. ‘The Tier 2 engineer,’ he sneered, ‘will send the ticket back to the call centre, where a Tier 1 tech will then converts the call ticket into a dispatch ticket. They’ll then send the work order to your local IT department with orders to dispatch a local worker to go investigate the problem.’
‘They dispatch a local worker,’ I repeated, trying to keep my poker face intact. ‘They dispatch who, exactly?’
‘The service desk will dispatch one of your Tier 1 techs,’ the PM said without missing a beat.
‘So, your central service desk will delegate the work order to one of my local Tier 1 tech support people… the exact same Tier 1 people that you terminated en masse in the first phase of this operation. Those people? You’re going to dispatch a worker that I don’t have anymore? How, exactly, is that supposed to work?’
The conference room went utterly silent as our would-be conquerors felt the metaphorical floor fall out from under them. The PM opened and closed his mouth several times like a beached salmon, and then tried to buster his way back into the comfortable, sustaining depths of his grans vision. He railed about how we all just needed to submit to the inevitable and stop resisting him. This was the way of the future!, You lack the vision to understand how it’ll all work! And so on.
We didn’t explicitly invite the implementation team to get bent, but it was clearly implied. They left. Their project collapsed. I heard that the PM managed to eject from the flaming wreckage of his project right before it imploded. Six months later, a completely different network consolidation team showed up with a shiny new plan of their own. They failed, too.
The thing is, we didn’t have any beef with the general concept of the consolidation initiative. It made sense… the various plans just weren’t fully fleshed out. Any of them could have been made to work, had the plan’s designers bothered to come out and observe how we actually lived out lives downing the trenches. Had they deputized the local experts who had a comprehensive understanding of the operational environment, they could have adapted their plans to accommodate our real-world needs. Instead, the designers arrogantly assumed that every location in the global entity worked exactly like their local office, and built their plans around their own atypical, aberrant operational environment rather than what we were actually dealing with.
They consolidators could probably have carried out their grand designs if they’d been wise enough to listen to us when we complained about select elements of their plans. Rather than get haughty, they should have taken the snarky jibes for what they were: potential warnings that something in their assumptions was out of synch. If the project leads had swallowed their pride and treated their ‘underlings’ with some respect, they might have realized their mistakes in time enough to correct them. But… they didn’t. Instead, they elected to dismiss all complaints as reflexive resistance to change. Yes, there was a great deal of simple resistance – I won’t deny it. A great deal of the negative comments that they encountered were uninformed or delusional; sometimes both. Not all comments. Most.
Remember this story the next time one of your subordinates call shenanigans on your brilliant new idea. Instead of getting angry that your people not falling blindly into line, suppress your visceral reaction and talk with your people about their assertions. See if they’re aware of something legit that you’re not. Take advantage of the opportunity to ‘get right’ with your project plan while there’s still time enough to change it. If the complainer doesn’t have a valid complaint, you can dismiss it without prejudice and get on with things.
I’m not trying to say that all employee bitching contains a gold mine of cosmic wisdom; far from it. Most complaining is just harmless venting and should be ignored as such. Some complaints, however, are potentially lifesaving. If you have the moral courage embrace your critics’ barbs without letting your ego cloud your perspective, then you can potentially save yourself a lot of grief.
That, in turn, ties in the literary joke I made in the title of this column. Joseph Heller’s absurdist 1961 novel about inherently paradoxical rule sets applies directly to this ‘employee bitching’ phenomenon. Employees complain about everything that happens as a means of numbing the frustration that they feel with the entirety of their absurd existence. It’s natural, and mostly harmless.
If a manager gives credence to all of the employee complaints that she encounters, then nothing will ever get done because the workers will reject everything new. Therefore, the responsible manager must ignore employee complaints or else fail. Some complaints, however, are prescient warnings that need to be heeded; if a manager fails to give credence to those warnings, then she’ll fail and (again) nothing will get done. So she should listen to all complaints to find the important ones. It would logically seem to be an inescapable paradox: if you ignore employee complaints, then you fail but if you make the wrong corrections you also fail… but if you make the right corrections, then employees will complain about them, etc. It certainly sounds like a Catch-22 problem… but it really isn’t.
The simple way to break out of the logic trap can be found in that Caesar joke that some anonymous signaler posted on his office door back at HQ, 1st/141st Infantry: if you’re intimately familiar with an organization, then you probably have sufficient context to sift the useful concerns from the background noise of idle employee bitching. If you don’t have that familiarity, then you need to accept that you can’t reliable tell the difference between the two. Since you can’t differentiate the wheat from the chaff yourself, you need to delegate that responsibility to someone that can. That, then, compels you to extend your trust to the organization’s embedded leaders to make that determination for you. Listen to what your subordinate leaders have to say, and address their concerns. If they’re legitimate, you’ll prosper by heeding their warnings. If they’re misguided, you can set things straight and reinforce trust between the echelons.
The key words there are ‘trust’ and ‘delegation’. The unstated-but-implied third word in that paragraph is ‘accountable’, as in, ‘hold your subordinate leaders accountable to serve you with integrity, fidelity, and candor’. More on that in next week’s column.
 Don’t be that guy. Seriously. Don’t.
 Medical Platoon, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 141st Infantry Regiment, 49th Armored Division, US Army.
 As part of earning my ‘hard stripes’, I was made an ambulance squad leader. My entire ‘squad’ consisted of me… and the private who drove our M113. That made it about as small a leadership assignment as you could get. For a junior squaddie, though, it felt like I’d been given my own capital ship.
 Female soldiers couldn’t serve in US infantry units back in the 1980s.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.