How to Turn Complaints Into Constructive Feedback That Gets Positive Results
Complaints are Not Necessarily Negative
“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.”Theodore Roosevelt, *maybe
I want to challenge the idea that complaints must be negative, explain how that mindset can hinder improvement, and offer some suggestions to affect positive change.
We probably all know someone who is a chronic complainer. Maybe that person is pessimistic and constantly expressing their negative perspective. Perhaps they are misunderstood. They might want to affect positive change, but feel unable to do so.
How a complaint is received depends partly on the attitude of the complainer and how effectively they can explain the problem. It also depends on the attitude of the recipient and the degree to which they are open to potential change.
Some say they would rather focus on positive issues, which may be valid or may be a reason to justify why they do not pay attention to problems. If everyone in the world never complained, or people didn’t listen to complainers, a lot of good improvements may not have been made, or could have been delayed until after a minor problem became a disaster.
Sometimes a person notices a problem but may not have the knowledge, experience, or authority to fix it. Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it. There is some value in that alone. However, the intent should be to work toward a solution, even if you haven’t yet thought of a solution.
Constructive Feedback is Better
Call it “constructive criticism,” if you want. I’ve noticed the term “feedback” seems more acceptable than “criticism.” A relevant term used in total quality management programs is “observation for improvement.” The point is that constructive feedback is positive for improvement vs. simply complaining or criticizing which can be seen as negative and destructive.
Focus on trying to figure out the root cause of a problem and address that. Sometimes there may be more than one root cause, and one of those may be a personal character issue. Making it, or taking it, personal about someone’s character is probably not the best way to approach it. That usually damages relationships and shuts down productive discussion.
Proposing solutions is ideal. Even if the proposed solutions are not certain or great ideas, that will show intent to improve rather than tear down. If you’re seen as a complainer, try to change that perception by noting a problem, identifying a cause, and proposing a solution, as clearly and objectively as you can without a negative attitude.
If you’re a manager that is receiving rough criticism, let the complainer know that you hear them and try to consider the value in their complaints. You might find that the complainer will become more receptive to learning from you about how to share more constructive feedback.
Sometimes experimenting with different solutions and observing their effects can help to identify root causes. In some cases, things are done a certain way because they’re tried and true. In other cases, things are done a certain way because nobody bothered to improve them. Find what works best and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly for success.
Key Suggestions to Lead Positive Change Within an Organization
Allow a method for people to express their complaints anonymously.
Log complaints, analyze the data, and follow up.
Try to encourage and consider the expression of different perspectives proactively.
Promote a culture of continuous improvement oriented around problem identification, root cause analysis, and problem solving.
I will illustrate an example from my experience in construction.
A familiar slogan in the industry is, “Safety First!” I’ve worked on huge construction projects that had millions of safe worked hours, which is impressive for such dangerous work. One of the methods that is used to prevent safety incidents are near miss reports, which are documented observations of circumstances that might lead to an incident, especially if similar near misses occur repeatedly.
For example, a forklift drops some material, but nobody gets hurt because nobody was standing in the way. Some people would look at that as a non-issue, but others would carefully observe that it might not always be possible for people to be seen and stay out of the way, so would report this as a near miss. Root causes could include how quickly the forklift is being operated and not securing a load to the forklift before carrying it across rough terrain. That problem could easily be prevented if the observation of a near miss is made in the first place and the root causes are resolved.
One project that I worked on had a very strict protocol for dealing with near misses which often resulted in punishing the workers for being involved or even for reporting them. Safety officers and production managers would argue, and try to blame others for these issues, as some of them perceived that the near miss statistics made them look bad, and this effectively shut down the reporting of near misses.
That did not help to prevent incidents and eventually someone died. After the fatal incident, investigation revealed that similar near misses were repeatedly observed and pointed out, but had been excluded from the formal records of near miss data, thus the root causes had not yet been resolved.
Paying attention and listening to complaints about problems before a disaster occurred would have been better. In that case, one of the root causes may have been lack of management commitment to continuous improvement.
There were many discussions, some antagonistic, that eventually led to a more healthy project culture. Training sessions improved understanding about the importance of near miss reporting. People were encouraged to to be more proactive about approaching others and to use a more cooperative communication style. Ultimately, this was all about developing a total quality management system integrated with safety and production.
Don’t Let This be Your Process for Dealing With Complaints
Paper goes from the printer directly to the shredder.
* Theodore Roosevelt Quote
“Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.”
I have heard paraphrases of that saying often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. I do not believe that quote is accurate, neither as attributed to Roosevelt, nor in the substance of meaning as I explained above. I’m not trying to make a political statement, but am including this information for the curious.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech delivered April 23rd, 1910 in Paris.
(See the actual quote in context, on the fourth page, near the bottom of the first paragraph: http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/speeches/trhnthopb.pdf )