Let Your Team Complain to You
On any team, there will be times when problems will arise, and a subordinate will come to you with a complaint. Maybe they find the release process too stressful, or perhaps they have a coding style pet peeve, or maybe they are having a hard time working with another colleague. Whatever it is, you should take it seriously.
Handling an employee’s complaint requires some thought and navigation. Talk to the person and ask them to explain the situation — try rephrasing the problem yourself if it helps. By the end of the 1:1 meeting, you should be able to assess what your subordinate expects of you: Are they just venting and blowing off steam? Or does the complaint require further action on your side?
Many managers tend to think that complaining spreads a culture of negativity, and they end up alienating their subordinates this way. A previous manager I had used to say: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” The issue with such statements is that it can cause employees to shut down, and, as a manager, you’ll be the last one to know about important problems. It would be best if you found a balance between being assertive and approachable. Employees should feel comfortable enough to talk to you.
As Eric Schmidt writes in Trillion Dollar Coach: “When it comes to the negative, get it out, get to the issues, but don’t let the meeting dwell on that.”
Besides learning about problems, there are other reasons why complaining can be useful to you as a manager.
It Means That Your Team Trusts You
It takes emotional courage for people to bring up problems to their manager. When people complain to you, it means that they feel comfortable having difficult conversations with you. It means that they trust you to take their issues seriously and try to resolve them.
It Creates a Safe Space to Share Feedback
In the book Management Fundamentals, Robert Lussier defines a complaint as an expression of dissatisfaction with a situation, often coupled with a request for change.
When an employee comes to you with a complaint, you shouldn’t take it personally, or become defensive about it. Instead, try to listen to them and understand what the underlying problem is and what their experience has been. When people complain, they often solicit comfort, understanding, and support. Use this opportunity to bond and create trust with your team, show them that there is always room for improvement and that you are open to their feedback and new ideas.
It’s an Opportunity to Grow as a Leader
Being a good manager requires constant learning and self-improvement. When a subordinate presents you with a complaint, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice humility and receiving feedback.
If, for example, they are complaining because the technical decisions are not transparent. It would help if you considered this as direct feedback to involve them, and maybe others, in decision-making. Or to find ways to be more open in communicating the thinking behind certain decisions.
It’s an opportunity for you to grow as a leader.
It’s an Opportunity to Guide and Mentor Your Team
Often when people complain, it’s because they are trying to find a solution to a problem but don’t know the answer. This kind of situation allows you to help them grow.
For example, if someone complains about the manual test set-up, maybe it’s an opportunity to get them to see how they can automate testing and improve the workflow. And therefore work on something beyond their scope.
If someone complains about another team member’s coding style, maybe it’s an opportunity to add linting to the continuous automation step and make code reviews easier.
If they complain about a teammate’s performance or pull requests not being complete, it’s an opportunity to show them how they can help and mentor others. It can broaden their influence within the team and give them a chance to develop leadership skills themselves.
It’s an Opportunity to Improve Company Culture and Performance
Some complaints might seem small, and you might be tempted to dismiss them quickly. But they still point to issues that might cause conflicts or hinder your team’s performance.
Imagine a situation where an employee complains about the time it takes to review a pull request. You might think that this person lacks patience. But there could be a real issue there that limits your team’s productivity.
Try to find out why pull requests are taking too long. Is it a bottleneck issue where only a few senior developers perform code reviews? Is the problem caused by the lack of context and description of pull requests? Are the pull requests too long and, therefore, harder to review? And what could you do about it? Should more people be involved in code reviews? Should the team adopt some template to better describe pull requests, etc.?
Receiving complaints can be difficult at first, especially when you perceive them as a criticism of your work as a manager. Regardless of the type of complaint that your reports have brought up, try to express your appreciation and acknowledge the effort that it took to bring these problems to your attention.
Turn the complaints into constructive feedback, reflect on the issues, and take some time to decide on your next steps as a leader. What actions are you going to take to further your development and improve your team’s performance?
- Schmidt, Eric. Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell. John Murray Press.
- Nawaz, Sabina. “The Problem With Saying ‘Don’t Bring Me Problems, Bring Me Solutions.’”
- Lussier, Robert. Management Fundamentals: Concepts, Applications, Skill Development.