Friday, 19 July 2013 11:44

Turning Complaints into Commitments

What are people complaining about in your organisation?

tension stress ball1 201x300 Turning Complaints into Commitments

  •     “We never have a chance to really talk about the big picture of our work. We’re under so much pressure to deliver what is needed now. There’s little opportunity to understand how things tie in with larger goals; consequently, there’s no breathing space for creativity or innovation.“
  •     “I’d be able to grow and develop at work if I didn’t have to babysit around here…If my subordinates didn’t come to me for every little decision and if they would take more initiative, I’d be freer to do the same in my own job.”
  •     “There’s too much talking behind one’s back here. People talk about others, but rarely to others. I don’t feel people come to me directly; I find out about things from other people. If I knew and had a chance to talk to the person with a complaint, then we could confront the issues and work on solutions.”

Complaints may vary but griping is always in season at work. When things go from bad to worse the discussions end up in the manager’s office. When they don’t, they form an undercurrent of discontent and resentment that is counter-productive.

People spend vast amounts of time complaining. They invest amazingly creative energies coming up with clever ways of expressing their discontent. No matter how sophisticated, however, a complaint is unpleasant to listen to. It can instill an aura of negativity and un-productivity. It becomes contagious. At its worse, it poisons relationships and sabotages team efforts.

A review of journals and books yields little on the subject. That is, not until Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey wrote, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (Jossey-Bass 2001). Kegan is a Harvard psychologist best known for his work in developmental psychology. Lahey is a research director at a Harvard research centre. They term complaints in the office as “BMW” talk: bitching, moaning and whining.

Ask any group of people how they could be more supported at work and you’ll get prime examples of BMW. Sometimes the complaints are made with head-shaking amusement, sometimes resentment and resignation. They are made by people who love their jobs, hate their jobs; by those that are good at their jobs, not so good, new at work, and near retirement. Criticisms are levied at bosses, subordinates, peers, “them,” and occasionally at oneself.

We all complain, no matter what our position. No matter what the particular content of complaints, it turns out that most of us have an experience at work that we perceive as obstructing our own well-being, growth and development.

This conversation about what we can’t stand is so universal it goes unrecognised and accepted as normal. Obviously the use of this language form is more recognised in others than in ourselves. Complaining grows like a weed. The problem is that it does not usually lead to changing anything.

To be fair, complaining may help people let off steam. It can also create alliances and support when one realises they are not alone. But it rarely accomplishes more than this. It doesn’t transform anyone or anything. It often leaves people feeling worse by virtue of the negative feelings that flourish.

Why complaints are important

It is important to pay attention to complaints because they contain a seed of passion! For every statement of what a person can’t stand, there is an underlying reason, or statement about what they stand for.

Where there is passion there is possibility for transformation. There is energy and there is commitment. People do not complain about what they don’t care about. So underneath the complaint, there is a river of committed passion and a source of energy to be discovered and harnessed…if we look for it and ask about it!

Leaders and managers are faced with complaints all the time. Here are some typical ways leaders respond:

  1.     Acknowledge the person’s complaint and give them more information that would explain the situation and provide another perspective.
  2.     Acknowledge the person’s complaint by actively listening and empathising with them in order to help them to accept the situation.
  3.     Acknowledge their complaint and try to explore solutions using problem-solving methods. Depending on your leadership style, you will direct or coach them to take action, or you might take the monkey on yourself by agreeing to do something to fix the problem.

What if there were a different approach to handling complaints, one that actually encouraged people to stay with the problem in order to pursue meaningful transformation?

Kegan and Lahey suggest asking this important question:

What sorts of things, if they were to happen more frequently in your work setting, would you experience as being more supportive of your own ongoing development at work? In other word, what do you really need to thrive?

Transforming thet language of complaints to the language of commitments

What commitments or convictions do you hold that are implied in your complaint? What value do you hold that is not being honoured? What commitment do you have that is not being fully recognised by this situation?

In every complaint there is a value that is not being honoured and it is usually the absence of this personal value that is rubbing the person the wrong way. Hence there is passion in complaints.

What if leaders could feel comfortable enough to listen to a complaint without explaining, empathising and trying to solve the problem? What if they took the time to explore for the unfulfilled values and commitments inherent in the BMW talk?

Unlock the underlying value and there is productive conversation about what needs to be done in order to create meaningful change. The key to doing this is through the use of language.

Leadership and language communities

Work settings are language communities in that structure, boundaries, norms and culture are organised linguistically. The importance of language and the way groups speak about themselves and their work cannot be underemphasised. In that sense all leaders are leading language communities. Though every person, in any setting has some opportunity to influence the nature of the language, leaders have exponentially greater access and opportunity to establish and influence others through the use of language. The only question is what kind of language leaders will choose to use.

We are all leaders at one time or in one way. We are all challenged by being stuck and blocked from creating changes that we say are important to us. We are all seeking language through which we can communicate more effectively and influence the decisions that others make.

The fact is that all of us are confronted with challenges when it comes to development and change. While it may be that sometimes this is because we have difficulty learning something or we attach a loss to shifting to something new, in all cases it is because we are committed to something. There is something we value that we are protecting. In the world of business and organisations this protective behaviour often shows up as complaining and various forms of discontent. It depletes work energy, negatively impacts retention of talented people and at its extreme breeds anti-organisational behaviour such as sabotage.

Leading change through changing the language we use

Kegan and Lahey present a methodology to provide new meaning to complaints and to elicit the underlying commitments that can provide passion and energy for changing behaviours. Through the use of this new methodology each of us can begin to shift our own behaviour and our relationships with others in the organisation from complaining to commitment and effective change.

A methodology for transforming complaints to commitments

Adapted from: How the Way We talk Can Change the Way We Work; Seven Languages for Transformationby Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (Jossey-Bass, 2001) with permission from the authors.

Step One:

Write down your answers to the following question: “What sorts of things, if they were to happen more frequently in your work setting, would you experience as being more supportive of your own ongoing development at work?”

 e.g.” More involvement in decision making”

Step two:

Pick just one you feel strongly about and complete the following sentence…“I am committed to the value or the importance of…”

e.g. , “I am committed to the importance of participating in decisions that affect me.”

Step three:

Consider your own part in the situation, by answering this question: “What am I doing or not doing that prevents my commitment from being fully realised?”

e.g. I sometimes hold back instead of standing up for myself and stating my opinion

Step four:

Consider that you may have other values that are competing with the value or commitment you stated in step 2: “I may also be committed to…” (This is usually something self-protective.)

e.g. “I am also committed to not looking stupid.”

Step five:

Look at the reasons for holding the competing value stated in step 4 by finishing the statement: “I assume that if…”

e.g. “ I assume that if I honour my commitment to state my opinion (in step 2), then this might mean I look stupid….”

To bring about actual change, we must do more than just become aware of our paradoxes. We must disturb the balance, not merely look at it. This methodology creates a more complete and comprehensive space in which to consider and experience a problem. Far from solving the problem, we expand it.

By expanding the initial problem to uncover its root cause, leaders and employees are spared from wasting time, energy and money on solutions that might be highly ineffective because the problems will just recur in differing forms.

Once the real cause of our complaints are revealed, we can look at them, reexamine them, and possible alter them. This is what leads to genuine transformation.

D. Worrall (2010)


Active Tree Services: Vegetation Management

“We were looking to take our people strategy to a new level, breaking new ground and in a lot of ways challenging norms that organisations hold too...


Pacific Power: Energy

"Your leadership of the organisation wide change project was impressive, demonstrating great ability during a very difficult period and successfully...


Fiserv: Financial Services

"Thankyou for your contributions to our … project, HR strategy, change management program and communications. I have been personally enriched...


Director Europe Imports Pty. Ltd

“Di’s coaching has helped me to find a more solid concentration of priorities, closer scrutiny of the business, more confidence to make better...


Human Capital Magazine

“Author Di Worrall… has a knack for bringing broad concepts of social change and applying those concepts to the business world. Her excellent...