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Keep the Change

The 3 Tricks To Finding The Hidden Message Inside Any Complaint

Lawrence Polsky
Contributor: Lawrence Polsky
Posted: 11/27/2011

People will complain during change. That is a given. When you hear it, give yourself a pat on the back. It means employees have accepted that the change is inevitable. They have moved past their initial fear and are struggling with how to make the change work for them.

A mistake leaders make when they hear complaining is to interpret it as a sign that people are being negative or resistant. It’s quite the opposite. At the beginning of any change, when people are struggling with accepting change, complaining is normal and healthy. Everyone will have challenges with making the change work. As a leader, you want to know what those challenges are so you can help your employees succeed. Here are three tricks to find the gifts inside the complaints.

1. No "But" Listening -- Listening to complaints is easier said than done. For example, in Europe I was leading a cross-functional discussion about actions needed to support change’s success. There were about 30 people in the room including the head of operations and the head of IT. We knew from previous meetings and conversations that both leaders were clearly on board with the changes and willing to support the process. However, each time the CIO made a well-intended suggestion about problems he saw, the operations head would jump in and says, "Yes, I know that is a problem, but…" Then, she would give all the reasons why it couldn’t be done. She was reacting as if her peer was being negative, rather than discussing the issue. You won’t get to the hidden message, if you defend the complaint with a "Yes I hear you, BUT…". You need to let go of the defense and just listen.

2. Be Wrong – We advised this leader, and others, to be wrong. Yes, leaders are paid to make the right decisions. They ascend the ranks by being perceptive, savvy and by being right more of the time than others. However, this can lead to them always wanting to be right, at the expense of everything else. Instead of hearing the idea behind the complaint, they hear, "You are wrong, I am right" and respond to an attack. I say "Be wrong!" Let others be right, and you be wrong, at least while they are complaining. Then, later you can reflect on the ideas and get back to them. This will encourage open communication and the best ideas to come to the table.


3. Say "Thank you, may I have another?" - In this case mentioned above, we had to interrupt the discussion and say to the operations head, "The CIO is giving you ideas for improvement. Instead of defending why the improvement can’t be made, the first thing you need to say is, ‘Thank you. Let me think about that. What else do you have for me?.’ If you don’t do this, you will miss the hidden message in the complaint, and stop any new improvement suggestions.


At the end of the workshop, the operations head, while making closing remarks, thanked everybody and shared how she realized how she wanted to be right more so than listening to others’ ideas. She got it! To the benefit of her team and her peers.
So the next time you have an employee who you think is being negative, use these three approaches to help discern the truth…and keep the change.

Lawrence Polsky
Contributor: Lawrence Polsky
Posted: 11/27/2011