Complaint to Commitment

Every work place has its chronic complainers. In fact, most organizations have a resident expert skilled in the craft. Complaining seems to be always in style. People spend vast amounts of time complaining. In fact, complaints can actually be the inspiration for a new idea or a new way to approach a problem. Noticing what’s wrong takes talent. It is a skill that has the capacity to discover opportunity and create change.

The first thing we need to do is to not think of a complaint as a complaint. Behind every complaint is an idea or a belief or a value that a person is committed to. Otherwise, why be upset? A person who complains about their manager being adversarial might be committed to the idea of having a relationship with their boss where they can discuss issues freely. We need to think of the complaint as something the other person is committed to, but we just can’t see it yet. When we only hear the complaint, we often become defensive or reactive and we then fail to see or hear the real opportunity.

When coworkers spend time complaining, it will usually be symptomatic of a larger issue. Perhaps the person feels resigned and doesn’t know how to ask for what they need. Underneath their compliant you will need to learn to listen for their covert unspoken request or commitment. Provide a serial complainer the opportunity to shift their perspective by offering them the gift of your questions.

When your team member comes to you with a complaint:

  • Listen beyond the words for the hidden request
  • Listen for underlying commitment
  • Use coaching questions to help turn their complaint into a commitment
  • How is that a concern?
  • What would you rather have?
  • What would that allow you to accomplish?
  • Do you have a request for me about helping to resolve this?

Once people stop thinking of themselves as complainers and start thinking of themselves as people who are committed to something, that sets the stage for them to do something about their problem. That happens by never dismissing the complaint but by finding the commitment behind it. We can use complaining as a catalyst for positive change and positive action in our own lives, at work, and in the world. The key is to turn complaints into commitments.

Charlie Sheppard is President of Sheppard Partners, Inc., a company on the forefront of next-generation behavioral assessment technologies. Sheppard Partners is an organizational development consulting company that focuses its efforts on helping organizations create high performance cultures. He brings experience in organizational development, specializing in the assessment, design, and delivery of development programs with an emphasis on strategic alignment, leadership development, team development, and negotiation skills. By developing innovative technologies and delivering creative solutions, Sheppard Partners is an active partner in the selection process, in the creation of effective teams, and in ongoing organizational development. Charlie coordinates the activities of Sheppard Partners consultants and serves the firm as the lead developer of assessment technologies and courseware.

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