From education to employment

How to complain properly and still raise morale

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

The English don’t know how to complain and it’s bad for business. Americans are much better at it.

Something goes wrong, they say so and get it fixed. That’s not the English way. We’d much rather not speak directly to someone who can rectify what’s gone wrong.

We vastly prefer to say nothing, put up with it or, if we’re really vexed, grumble about it to someone else who’ll typically be quite able to sympathise and totally unable to make anything better.

Why is this?

Probably because we know if we do complain we’ll be met with exactly the same behaviour: a grudging acknowledgement which leaves us convinced the first thing this person will do is find someone else to whom they can complain about our sheer effrontery. To adapt the Pink Floyd lyric, plodding on in uncomplaining frustration is the English way.

Does it matter?

Well in the workplace, yes it does. First of all it’s a great recipe for producing mediocrity – marginal losses achieved by putting up with small incremental detriments aggregating to significantly sub-optimal performance.

It’s also a great way of really damaging staff morale. I’d be surprised if you’ve been in the workplace longer than five years and not come across or been involved in something closely resembling the following scenario:

In the course of delivering a presentation, Alex notices Lou rolling their eyes. Incensed, Alex naturally does the English thing and complains bitterly to Charlie, Lou’s line-manager. In order to placate Alex, Charlie offers to speak with Lou about it. Two days later Charlie calls Lou in and tries to explain how upset Alex was by their behaviour. There have been better meetings. This one is fairly disastrous because Charlie wasn’t there and Lou can’t remember.

Just imagine how Lou is left feeling: distrust of, and contempt for Alex for cowardice and causing hurt; and contempt for Charlie who couldn’t even be bothered to get properly informed before conducting what felt like a disciplinary interview; one, moreover, that came like a bolt out of the blue.

Another two days later and Lou remembers what it was all about. Eyes did indeed roll but not at all at Alex. The gesture was actually in agreement with a comment Alex was making about an example of really poor practice. Lou has been completely misunderstood, judged, and reputationally damaged all without ever being able to put in a word for themselves. And now it’s too late.

If an organisation’s well-being depends on the discretionary effort of its employees, out of pragmatic good sense besides ethical duty, better care should be taken of Lou.

But how?

By helping Lou’s managers get over their Englishness and learn how to complain properly. It simply takes a bit of humility and that can be acquired. Make it a rule that when something goes wrong you take ten seconds to remind yourself that even if you think you can see what has gone wrong, you don’t know why. Alex saw those eyes roll and jumped straight to a mistaken conclusion.

Ten seconds out would have allowed a little doubt in. Instead of rocketing up to anger, Alex’s emotional thermometer would have registered at most suspicion. With practice and time such an episode would arouse only curiosity. But Alex should be inquisitive because, after all, a possibility at this stage is that Lou was showing disrespect.

But having taken the emotion out of the matter, it’s much easier for Alex to approach Lou directly. And easier still when that humility in the face of what’s not known prompts the obvious way forward: when you don’t know, ask a question. Alex can catch Lou straight after the presentation and with a smile and a little curiosity in the voice ask Lou, ‘I noticed you roll your eyes when I was talking about that dud system…’ And Lou will immediately pipe up, ‘Oh yes! Wasn’t it dreadful!…’ And any doubt disappears.

If on the other hand there’s a bit of a pause and Lou appears to be embarrassed then Alex knows enough has probably already been said to ensure there’s no recurrence of that behaviour.

That two-day delay in the scenario is also telling. If it takes two days to summon up the courage for a ‘difficult’ conversation it’s probably a sign there’s still too much emotion and not enough humility clinging to the matter.

It doesn’t take two days to recognise a lot you don’t know – and find the right question.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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