employee complaints

4 Steps to Turn Employee Complaints Into Positive Outcomes

I hear from plenty of leaders who are sick and tired of disgruntled employees who offer one complaint after another.

It’s easy to empathize with them. Life would be a lot easier if employees would focus on their work and cut the whining.

If you’re in this situation, I say look on the bright side. It could be worse.


Sure. Employees who complain still have hope. Somewhere deep down they believe their complaints will help.

Their thinking goes something like this:

  • Things are messed up around here.
  • Nobody’s doing anything to make it better.
  • They’re not taking action because they don’t know about the problem.
  • If I voice my concerns, they will know about the problem.
  • And once they know about the problem, they’ll take action.
  • Then the problem will go away, and my life will be better.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? While complaining isn’t a complete problem-solving process, building problem awareness certainly is one useful step.

Don’t let the situation get worse

Things really can be worse. It’s worse when employees stop complaining.

It’s not because things are better. They’re not. Employees no longer complain because they no longer believe it will make a difference. They give up.

Once apathy sets in, serious problems follow:

  1. Productivity tanks
  2. Errors and waste soar
  3. Problems are ignored
  4. Customers are mistreated
  5. Turnover rises

If your employees get to this point, it’s a long, hard road to turn things around. It’s much easier to address the problems when employees still want things to be better. That time is when they are complaining.

Your turnaround strategy involves four steps.

1. Listen carefully

It’s one thing to voice a complaint. It’s another to go on and on and on about it. When I raise the same concern to the same people multiple times it’s because I didn’t think they really heard me.

Whether it’s an individual or a group, you can stop the cycle of complaints by using active listening skills: Paraphrase, clarify, and summarize.

Suppose your team has been griping about a new process. You recently made some changes that your employees didn’t like, and the uproar has been non-stop.

At your next staff meeting you might carve out some time for a discussion about what you’ve heard. Imagine saying this:

“I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about our recent process change. Some of you have been pretty direct. Others have been less direct, but the message is still coming through. Based on what I’ve heard so far, you don’t like the process because you think it takes more effort and actually creates more mistakes. Obviously, if that’s the case, it’s a problem. I’m glad you let me know. I want to understand the situation in depth. Tell me more about where the extra effort is required and how the process leads to mistakes.”

As your employees share their concerns, paraphrase specific comments. Ask more questions to really dig down and understand the problem. Sum up everything you heard at the end.

Finish the conversation with this question: “I want to make sure I fully understand your concerns. What have I missed?” If you’ve been successful in this step, they’ll let you know you’ve got it and either ask directly or you’ll see the question in their eyes, “So what are you going to do about it?”

2. Engage employees in developing solutions

There are a few problems you own, and your employees likely aren’t going to be successful dealing with them. For example, if everyone complains that pay is too low, it really is up to the senior leaders/owner to decide whether they are willing to make some adjustments to how employees are paid.

For most problems, however, employees can and should be central to creating a solution. If you want them engaged, you might try engaging them on the problem about which they are complaining.

The fear managers raise when I suggest this is, “What happens if they create something I don’t like or can’t live with?”

It’s a good question, and I’ve got a three-part answer:

  1. When you charter the project, talk about the goals, constraints, and limitations. If there are some deal-breakers out there, point them out before hand. You need to make sure everyone shares a common set of expectations.
  2. The work shouldn’t be them and me. It’s we working together to solve the problem.
  3. If the solution achieves the goal, why do you care what the solution is? Not a micro-manager, are you?

3. Implement the solution

Nothing kills engagement quicker than identifying a problem, launching an effort to fix it, coming up with an agreed-upon solution, and then not implementing it. This is how you permanently establish the employee belief that it doesn’t matter what they do or say because nothing ever changes.

Take action. Try the solution. Show people that you are serious about making things better, and that they have the power to make a difference.

4. Measure results and celebrate success

Now it’s time to determine whether the idea worked or not. Measure the results. If things have improved, and especially if you hit the goal, celebrate the win.

Then go back and connect the dots for employees. The message includes the following five elements:

  1. You raised a serious concern.
  2. Together we built a solution.
  3. We tried out what we built.
  4. It worked.
  5. Thank you.

Should you discover there’s more work to do, that’s okay. Acknowledge progress and circle back to revise your solution or build a new one.

Engaged employees

It’s not easy to listen to complaints from your employees. There are two ways to reduce the number of them. The first is to ignore them and wait for employees to slip into apathy. The second is to hear them and then engage employees to make things better.

You’ve got two options. The best choice is clear.