Ask and Act, or Hold You Tongue

I've talked in the past about the natural inclination humans seem to have to complain about thing.  Anything from the quality of the "free" office coffee, to "why Sally got to take Tuesday off, but I couldn't get off next Thursday," to the seeming stupidity of certain corporate strategies or policies (or the lack thereof).

Management teams frequently undermine themselves and exacerbate this problem, by asking for these types of opinions and criticisms without a clear cut plan of what they will do with them once they are heard.

One of the chief causes of the rise of industrial unionism during the last century was the perception of "favoritism" in the supervisory ranks.  I have no doubt there was some rampant favoritism going on, but certainly the unwillingness and/or inability of supervisors to respond to concerns, criticisms and complaints of employees was a big part of what led to this perception.

I can't even begin to count the number of times I've listened to "all hands" meetings, where employees were invited to ask questions and share concerns, with a management team that had no intention of doing anything about the information gathered and the requests made.  Often times, management would discuss the comments of employees when they were cloistered, but typically seemed to decide they were already adequately addressing the issues.  The problems were rarely addressed with the person bringing them up at all, and almost never publically.  Over time, employees became discouraged with management's seeming lack of response, and the meetings became increasingly adversarial.

I witnessed the same thing happening with salesforces in a couple of companies where I worked -- the complaints and criticisms of the sales organization being invited by management, but not addressed.  At one employer, I walked into my first meeting and witnessed one of the distributors rage about an error the company had been repeatedly making on his shipments.  He then went on to quote the income, stock options and bonus payout of the senior company executive in the room (available in the proxy statement), stating that as a distributor, he didn't have that kind of largess to fall back on.  Talk about embarrassing.

To try to bring these distributors back under some semblance of control, my team instituted a regular agenda which started with a review of all the open items from the last meeting.  We provided time for the distributors to discuss their concerns without us in the room, and then present the three or four biggest issues from their perspective.  We would then work on those issues (or a subset of them) between meetings.

I set this all up by telling the distributors we were serious about their concerns, but we wouldn't successfully fix every one of them between meetings.  With a more reasonable expectation of progress, and improvements on at least one open item to report back each time, things calmed down.  The success came as a result of getting the distributors to help us prioritize what was to be addressed, and we communicated thoroughly on progress.  I also made it a point to never drop items from "the list" withoug discussing why we were doing so -- trying to lend some credibility and build confidence in us..

Later, I was able to apply the same principles to other dissatisfied groups (mostly employees).  Engaging them in helping to make things better and keeping them involved seemed to reduce divisiveness, and improve attitudes.

Of course, none of this worked without a fairly high level of effort from management.  And if you're in management, you know dealing with internal complaints can easily become one of the "thousand things" you're responsible for.  So my counsel is to pick your battles carefully.  Save this tactic for your most important and/or most disaffected groups.  Otherwise, limit the opportunities for employees to make criticisms and provide critique.  When they slip in, go for quick solutions -- a "no, we're not going to do that" answer is better than letting a suggestion fall into the abyss.

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If you enjoy the ideas presented in my blog posts, then check out my novels. Corporate Thrillers LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of business.