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Managing complainers at work is about effect use of the talking cure.
23 Aug 2010

Managing Complainers At Work By Taking A Positive View

Employees complain. In most firms that makes them complainers. That makes problems for managers. The key though is managing complainers at work by taking a positive view. It starts with not seeing complaints as complaints. They could be insights, needs, problems and even opportunities.

When managing complainers at work, don't get to the place where you're complaining about complainers.

There is money to be made from managing complainers at work well. One person’s complainer is another’s gold mine.

The Talking Cure

For instance, in Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article, “Letting Go,” he writes “about the importance of hospice giving “patients someone experienced and knowledgeable to talk to about their daily needs.” Do we expect hospice employees to treat these as complaints? No, we don’t. Why then should employees who want to talk to someone experienced and knowledgeable about their needs be complainers?

Both are examples of the “talking cure.” First coined by Josef Breur and further developed by Sigmund Freud it’s the idea that talking through troubles lowers anxiety. People feel better. They do better. Managing complainers at work then means talking through complaints to lower workplace tension.

Complaints As Emotional Sweat

In the work place though, we often wrongly see this as a “bitch session.” For instance, an office manager in a law firm once complained to me about the time it was taking her to “talk through” conflicts among the staff. I finally asked her, “What makes you think this shouldn’t be part of your job?”

When employees perform at their peaks, some anxiety will naturally arise. They are after all working on the edge of their comfort zones. Using the full extent of their skills under urgent time frames. In short, they sweat emotionally. Kenny Loggins‘ song from the movie Top Gun calls this the Danger Zone.

Now, consider what would happen to an athlete who wasn’t allowed to sweat. Let’s say she had to wear a wet suit that would not allow it. Eventually, she would collapse. The same thing occurs on an emotional level when employees can’t release their “emotional sweat.” In short, not allowing them to vent makes things worse.

Managing Complainers At Work

Managing complainers at work takes skill, practice and personality. Managers can learn these. A key is knowing that one does not have to resolve the complaint. The mere act of listening helps much. That’s why the talking cure works so well.

Moreover, feeling the need to do something about the complaint puts pressure on the manager. This increases the likelihood that she’ll respond negatively to the complaint. That, again, just makes it worse.

It’s like a medical lawsuit. There are awards for medical expenses. Then, there are also awards for pain and suffering. Doing something about the complaint is the first. Listening to the complaint is the second. Talking through it minimizes the pain and suffering of the employees. He works better as a result.

3 Responses

  1. This is very interesting. I once worked under a British boss (in an American company) where I was told quite sternly that co-workers had “no business discussing (particular work issues).” I had a discussion with another British co-worker where I repeated this conversation with my boss, and expressed my opinion that “adults should be able to discuss whatever they wish!” My British co-worker (about age 40) told me she found that a revolutionary idea (that co-workers should be free to decide for themselves what they wished to discuss). She later told me she spent weeks thinking about it and decided she liked the idea.

  2. Tammy Wilson

    This article is so true, yet some closed-minded Managers still do not see the benefits of ‘talk throughs’. In my experiences, the most satisfied and dedicated employees were working for Managers who promoted open communication, especially in the midst of a crisis. I don’t think working ‘as a team’ is even possible when people cannot share their honest feelings and discuss differences of opinion in a healthy manner. Associates who think differently are critical to growing a business. They can drive creative thought processes and new ideas that may have been overlooked under a dictatorship.
    I have also learned that timing is everything. If troubles are not ‘talked through’ relatively soon after occurring, they will continue to snowball and eventually turn into a blizzard. We need to always focus on the issue at hand to get positive results, not on the agenda from last month.

    1. Thank you, Tammy, for your comment. You won’t get any disagreement from me. Having diverse personalities who are willing to speak up will tend to make the group more adaptable and innovative. However, they are more difficult to manage and require a higher-level managerial skill set.

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