How To Help Complaining Employees Solve Their Own Problems
Managers, are you are tired of putting out fires? Compassionate Accountability® can help you be a leader instead of a fire extinguisher.
One of the most common complaints I hear from overworked managers is,
My employees come to me complaining about other employees, and expect me to fix it. I’m constantly putting out fires or doing someone else’s dirty work. I’m worn out.
Compassion without accountability gets you nowhere
You might think you are being a kind and supportive leader when you do these things:
- Listen to the same complaints day after day
- Commiserate with employees about their struggles
- Allow them to complain about people who aren’t in the room
- Accept their requests for you to “go talk to her” or “go tell him to stop”
This is neither kind nor supportive. These behaviors only reinforce that the employee is not responsible for their behavior, or for helping solve their own problems. In the long run, leaders who practice compassion without accountability create employees who are dependent and can’t solve their own problems. This means you as a leader are working overtime.
Accountability without compassion gets you alienated
Coming down hard on employees or expecting them to fend for themselves when they complain is equally damaging. They will stop coming to you, take the drama underground, and fail to learn valuable lessons about how to work together on a team.
Compassionate Accountability is the essence of great leadership
Compassion and accountability aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, compassion is all about “struggling with” people instead of the extremes of “I’ll struggle instead of you,” or “You are on your own to struggle alone.” Leadership is about recognizing how to share the struggle in ways that build value, capability and responsibility. This is the essence of compassionate accountability.
Three Roles of a Leader
Compassionate leaders do three things really well. When they stray from these, they compromise compassionate accountability and create more work for themselves.
Create a safe place to talk about what matters: Employees need a safe place to share their concerns, fears, and joys. They need to know that they will be taken seriously and won’t be judged. The best way to do this is to listen, ask questions, and show them you care. You can validate their feelings without condoning behavior or getting involved as a drama ally. Don’t be afraid to show your own vulnerability because this shows you are willing to get real as well. Employees who feel heard will have more courage to take ownership over their problems.
Be a sounding board, not a solution board: Ask curious questions about how the employee sees the situation, what they have tried already, and what ideas they have for a solution. Learn about their strengths, so you can emphasize these as a resource for problem-solving. Advice should be limited, and only given with permission. The whole point is to engage the employee in the solution. This helps them have ownership. As my friend Ken Blanchard says, “Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.”
In my interview with Seth Godin, he explains that difference between managers and leaders is “enrollment.” Learn on this podcast episode.
Keep focus on what matters most: Employee conflict and drama can distract people from the most important things. Leaders help keep the focus on what matters most, like team goals, company mission, or job priorities. Don’t let employee complaints derail you into spending energy in nonproductive ways. Remind the employee what’s really at stake and why we are here in the first place. Employees who see that their behavior is part of something much bigger than themselves are more likely to be part of the solution.
NEVER tell an employee to stop complaining because they are lucky to have a job. This broadcasts that you don’t really care about their development or satisfaction in their job, nor that you have any role to play in their success.
How to Have The Difficult Conversation
Employee: “I can’t believe Sally gets to leave early. That’s not fair.”
Leader: “I can imagine it’s tough to see that when you are working so hard. What ideas do you have for how to handle this? Ultimately, it’s important that you talk to each other because that’s how we build trust and accountability.”
Employee: “I can’t keep up with the documentation. Will you tell Juan to help me out and stop messing around all the time?”
Leader: “I remember struggling to learn the new system when I started. I’m happy to share some tips to speed things up if you want. The documentation is your responsibility.”
Employee: “I’ve been talking to several others in our department, and we all feel that Bart isn’t carrying his weight. Will you say something to him?”
Leader: “I feel uncomfortable with conversations that don’t include the person. This is an important issue to address, and as Bart’s teammate, this is a conversation you need to have with him directly. I’m happy to support you, but I won’t do it for you. It’s important that our team supports each other and holds each other accountable with direct conversations.”
In each scenario, the leader stayed focused on just three things; create a safe place, be a sounding board, and focus on what matters most. As a result, the three most important aspects of compassionate accountability were maintained; we are all valuable, capable, and responsible.
When employee complaints are approached with compassionate accountability, the leader is investing energy in building up employees and their capacity to solve problems. In the long run, this makes the leader’s job more satisfying, helps the employee feel better about themselves, and contributes to the company’s success.