The complaint department never closes
When you take on more responsibility
Suzan’s Fieldnotes is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. I try to make this one of the best emails you get this week. If you enjoy the content, please like it above and share it with friends.
Like many, I got into leadership by taking responsibility and stepping into voids. I love solving problems and making things run better, even if not technically my job to do it. Taking ownership is just something I naturally do. Those who find their way into leadership are often those willing to be responsible for a goal or consistently work to resolve issues. These behaviors are largely positive for the organization and for their career. However. People who take on responsibility can inadvertently overdo it — they start to believe they have to solve every problem. Their desire to be helpful becomes self-imposed edicts that turn into burdens. There's a tarot card that reminds me of this tendency to take on too much: Ten of Wands. In the illustration, a person labors under a bundle of sticks. It looks like they're carrying an extra load along with their own. Their back is bent over, face buried in the work. You can feel the burden. This position isn't sustainable for long, they've taken on too much responsibility.
Leaders tend to shoulder too much, especially in the early days. I fell into this trap too. Complaints were especially tricky. Complaints have always felt like a call to action. If I can do something to address pain or help someone move closer to a goal, it's a priority. Being in a leadership role means complaints often find their way to you. As a COO, when someone came to me with a concern, I set about addressing it. I tried really hard to address every issue. That concern resolved, another popped up. It was like a game of whack-a-mole. Complaints are also often contradictory. What one person loves, another one hates. When you solve a problem for one person, you might create one for another.
"We have too many Slack rooms."
"I don't have a Slack room where I can discuss my love of long-haired cats"
“The performance review process is too arduous. Make the process shorter.”
“We need to 360 reviews to ensure we’re getting enough perspectives on performance.”
I learned that you wear yourself out trying to resolve every complaint, especially those without tidy solutions or any resolution. Some complaints were unresolvable for practical reasons like laws or financial constraints; others because the grumbling had become a habit — a way of dealing with life. Not being able to resolve every complaint gnawed at me. Not to mention all the negativity that surrounds complaints. Sometimes it made me want to eat a vat of guacamole and a family sized bag of tortilla chips. For a while they were my nemesis. I lost time trying to resolve all of them before realizing: the complaint department never closes for leaders.
While I couldn’t resolve every complaint, I could manage my energy better. Here’s what I learned. Spend more time trying to understand why they’re complaining. This helps parse out the real complaints from habitual behavior. Sometimes they complain because they need to vent, hoping that externalizing their feelings will relieve stress. Or they grumble because they’re in pain. They know there isn’t resolution and just want it to be acknowledged. Offering a place for them to get it out can be helpful but make sure not to take it on personally. Other times complaining can also be a way of connecting with others, a form of bonding. This is ok. Unless it becomes overly negative or devolves into an us vs them situation with leadership, let it go.
Tougher complaints are those that have turned chronic or habitual. Others will channel that unhappiness in your direction. Count on it. Sometimes people are just unhappy. They relish the opportunity to grumble. There’s probably not much you can do to make them content. Projecting our frustration outward is human nature—we do this when we feel scared, confused, or disempowered. As an authority figure, those feelings get sent in your direction. Sometimes it can turn into a way of loading frustration without taking responsibility for your actions. If not careful, leaders can take on issues that aren’t ours. The psychological term is projective identification. The hard part is that you can’t totally tune them out, sometimes they’re pointing to a common pain others have.
There’s also those who relentless strive to be better turns into a list of what’s wrong and how to improve it. Rather than focusing on how to make a good enough solution work, they aim for an idealized solution. While well-meaning and intended as feedback, you can’t act on every suggestion. Even though the energy more positive, the constant suggestions overwhelm. Help them learn how to prioritize their zeal for perfection. Discernment is essential in both cases. Validate whether others have the same experience. This helps you know where to focus your problem solving energy.
Complaints aren't all negative. Raising concerns can be a way for people to give themselves a voice, can be empowering. And, there are real problems that need attention. Raising issues can elevate them to bring about change. Sometimes complaining about a decision to those in charge is exactly right. Humans are imperfect, so not every decision will be right—maybe not even many of them. Make sure you find and address real pain points causing interpersonal or organizational distress. It will build trust, empower the team and help maintain a positive culture.
Quit hoping the grumbling will stop. Pace yourself with the volume — and the negativity. Don't let the barrages of complaints make you doubt yourself. Do take a deeper look to ensure you've thought through the decision from enough angles but don’t let the complaint stream take you down. Finding a way to navigate the stream allows you to improve conditions for the team without sacrificing your own well-being.
What else to read
Whining, griping and complaining: a survey of research.
Emotions are contagious so keep an eye on chronic gripers.
The downside of the lure for constant improvement.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.