Why a good boss likes it when people complain

Tell me all about it.
Tell me all about it.
Image: Jopwell
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I know some managers say “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” but personally I don’t subscribe to it.

I love when people complain to me. Of course, complaining is a national past time for the British, and we don’t just limit ourselves to complaining about the weather, or the poor availability of good tea when traveling. Brexit has provided some strong fodder for complaining (where do we begin?) but really your average British can complain about anything.

But, here’s why complaining is so useful to me as a manager.

It helps you suss out problems

First and foremost, complaining is an act of trust, one that gives you, the manager, the opportunity to address the issue and channel solutions. If people don’t trust you enough to complain to, you may never learn what’s wrong.

It is predicated on the complainer’s experience

I read an interesting article recently that said you shouldn’t give feedback, but rather focus on the experience. This can be a really helpful way to deliver tough feedback.

Similarly, when someone who reports to you tells you about their experience, there’s probably some implicit feedback there that can help you improve as a manager. Maybe they are complaining because, for example, they are missing some context that you should have been sharing with them—and probably should be sharing with other people, too.

It shows you what they value

People usually don’t complain about things they don’t care about. So when they complain, they are likely showing you what’s important to them. Do they care a lot about transparency? Delivery? The specifics of version control? Whatever it is, you have an opportunity to understand what matters to them and why it is annoying them so much.

It helps untangle conflict

When two people on a team complain about each other, what you’re hearing is two sides of a conflict. This is great!—now you have the information you need to help them resolve it. Whether it’s talking them through how their actions or communication have landed on each other, or identifying the values or priorities or other nerve that the situation is hitting, you can coach the complainers through the process of building a more constructive relationship. Bonus, because they both have demonstrated they trust you, you can try and use the transitive properties of trust to help them create some goodwill for each other, too.

It’s an opportunity for coaching and clarity

Often when people complain, it’s because they think something is out of their control.This gives us the opportunity to help them grow their circle of influence. For example, if someone complains about a peer not delivering, maybe it’s an opportunity to get them to see how they can be helpful, or how they can give the peer some feedback. Maybe they complain about some company policy, and it’s an opportunity to understand the broader reasons and implications, so you can help them to work within their constraints rather than resorting to blame.

It broadens your scope

We are often focused on the biggest and most urgent problems, but the minor complaints we hear today can be signs of the pressing problems of tomorrow. What can we learn from them? What can we get ahead of? Sometimes it’s just a helpful reminder that the most pressing problems are not evenly distributed across the team, and can help us have a sense of perspective and progress.

It’s an opportunity for empathy

When we are focused on the existential, some complaints can seem a bit like… “You’re bothered by that? Really?” It might not be your biggest problem, but it is theirs, so take a deep breath, and hear them out.

Of course, sometimes complaining can become toxic. It’s important that people both are and feel heard, but it’s also important to keep things constructive. Recognize when complaining (including your own) is becoming toxic, set some boundaries, and escalate when necessary.

Remember, one thing that’s common with “nice” people is that they give others the benefit of the doubt for far too long, and are horribly annoyed by the time the person in question finally gets some sense of what’s going on. Turning those small, early, complaints into constructive feedback—and, if the feedback is not addressed, then proper documentation—can save managers a lot of work down the road.

Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led the mobile and Jetpack teams.