A Culture of Communication, Not Complaints

September 30, 2009

The final courage in Ira Chaleff’s book The Courageous Follower is for the leader – the courage to listen to followers.  If you are a leader, do you really want courageous followers?  Most of us would say we have the courage to listen to our followers, but do our behaviors send a different message?  The litmus test is whether or not followers actually come to you with thorny concerns about work processes, policies, or your own behavior. 

As you listen to followers, you want to do so in a way that builds a culture of communication and not a culture of complaints.  Our job as leaders is to build a culture in which conflict is handled through healthy and creative dialogue. 

Complaints should be taken to the person or persons who need to be addressed for it to be resolved.  Leaders that listen to complaints are colluding with the dysfunctional culture.

When someone comes to you with a complaint about someone else in the organization, what is the first question you should ask them?

“Have you spoken to this person about your concern?”

If not, encourage them to do so.  If necessary, provide some coaching on how to effectively approach someone with a concern.  Provide an example from your own experience of when you did this at some point in your career and what happened as a result.  Emphasize that you are not discounting either them or their issue, but you are working to build a culture where people communicate more effectively.  Add that when they are in a leadership position someday, they too will appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from followers first when concerns arise.  Remind them that the person they have the issue with is in the best position to address and resolve the issue.  Make sure they understand that if they still have concerns after they have spoken directly to the individual, then please come see you again.

If you listen to complaints then you are teaching your followers that they don’t have to work together to solve their problems – you will do this for them.  This paternalistic behavior on your part makes your followers dependent on you rather than making them interdependent with each other.  If you listen to complaints you will create complacent instead of courageous followers. 

The path to partnership begins with you assuming responsibility for the effect your behavior has on others. 

Related Posts:

What Type of Followers Do You Have?

The Courage to Take Moral Action

Do Your People Ever Tell You No?

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Comments (8)

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  1. Wally Bock says:

    Great post, Bret. If you’re the boss, then everything you do that suggests that you are the one with all the answers and the one who will do all the confronting and correcting enables what I call the Third Grade Teacher model of leadership.

    As you point out, you have to be the one that helps everyone make the move from the third grade to an effective team made up of effective knowledge workers. Of course, that is far easier said than done.

    One big obstacle lies in the area of talking to team members about performance or behavior. Most bosses haven’t learned to do this well and are therefore both awful at it and reluctant to do it.

    If we’re going to get team members to talk to each other about behavior and performance issues, we need to have good models. That means we need to make sure that their team leaders have learned the few simple techniques they need to do the job.

    I’ve taught those techniques and written about them in the Working Supervisor’s Support Kit and a blog post titled “Talking to Team Members about Performance.”


    Even if you get the techniques right, this is something that takes a long time to change. Most of us learned the ropes in systems where the boss was expected to have the answers and where the boss was the one who did any necessary confronting. That doesn’t change easily or quickly.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    As always, Wally, your expert insight adds value to this discussion. Your point abour focusing on behavior is especially important. I read a blog post the other day from an HR expert about how to talk to an employee with a “bad attitude” and I just about exploded. I would encourage folks to follow your links and learn more. Thanks! Bret

  2. Wally Bock says:

    Ooooooooooo attitude! Another invisible thing you’re supposed to fix. In the Working Supervisor’s Support Kit and elsewhere, here’s the message on attitude.

    You can’t get at attitude directly. It’s like beauty or love, it’s a judgment that’s based on behavior or performance. Systems theorists would call attitude an emergent property.

    So what you have to do is ask yourself, as the boss, “What does this person DO or SAY that leads me to conclude that they have a bad attitude?” Then address the behavior or performance that the answers to those questions reveal.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Right on, Wally. Too many managers use attitude like a hammer – it’s the only tool in the box and they use it to whack everything that does not seem to fit. It’s one of those words folks throw around to try to appear smart but really have no idea what they are talking about. Thanks, Wally! Bret

  3. Susan Mazza says:

    This is great advice. Although I do think there is a difference between listening to the complaint so the steam can come out of it vs. trying to handle it for them or letting them off the hook for taking personal responsibility for their communication.

    And as Wally eludes to most people have not learned to deliver tough feedback, especially the tough feedback, very well

    I believe behind every complaint is a commitment. If we can help people to get in touch with what they are committed to they are much more likely to have a productive conversation with the person they have the issue with.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You are correct, Susan. Part of the reason we want folks to assume responsibility is because we care about them and we know our relationships can never fully develop until we are interdependent. We do empathize when they have concerns, but we have to get them to handle them more productively. That can be a long road. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  4. Dorothy Dalton says:

    Hi Bret – great post. There is a fine line between mentoring/supporting someone and enabling them ( doing something for them they should do themselves) in many areas of business or even life in general. Giving difficult feedback is one such area. Creating an atmosphere of constructive collaborative communication by example, is a great place to start and I feel is the mark of a strong leader. If it doesn’t come naturally – it can be learned.



    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Dorothy, I appreciate your thoughts, and I especially love the one about enabling your people. That is a GREAT way to fram the issue! And so true it CAN be learned. Thanks!! Bret