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  • Writer's pictureTamara McKenzie

Breaking the Cycle of Negative Nancies: How to Tackle Employee Complaints About Customers

The human brain has a tendency to dwell on negative experiences, and this is a common phenomenon in the workplace as well. On average, employees complain or listen to others complaining four times a day. The reason for this is that negative events have a greater impact on our emotions and well-being compared to positive experiences.

This negative bias also leads to people speaking out more about negative experiences. Venting can provide temporary relief from unpleasant emotions, and talking to someone who understands and supports our complaints can provide a sense of comfort and belonging.

It is important to understand the power of negativity bias in the workplace, and to create a culture that allows for feedback while also addressing this natural tendency to give more weight to negative experiences.

The Fine Line Between Venting and Complaining

The act of complaining is a natural response to a negative experience, but experts are divided on whether it can ever be a positive choice. Some believe that complaining serves as an emotional release, while others argue that venting only amplifies the issue at hand.

A third group of experts believe that the intention behind complaining is key. They distinguish between two types of complaining: one for venting purposes and the other for creating change. Those who believe in the power of constructive complaining argue that it serves a purpose.

Individuals with higher self-esteem tend to complain more, as they believe their feedback can make a positive impact. Complaining with the hope of producing a different outcome is linked to greater happiness in the complainer. The intention behind each complaint can be the determining factor in whether or not it leads to positive change, both personally and professionally.

Managing Team Venting: A Guide for Managers

Venting is a natural response for employees who feel unheard or unsupported, but it can lead to apathy or frustration if not managed properly. Managers can create a supportive work environment by prioritizing empathy, building a strong network of support, addressing systemic causes behind complaints, empowering employees to provide feedback, and establishing clear communication standards.

Emphasize Empathy and Coachability in Hiring and Training

During the hiring process, it's important to look for candidates who not only have the necessary skills and experience but also demonstrate empathy and a willingness to learn. These traits are essential for building strong and collaborative teams, fostering positive work relationships, and promoting organizational success.

Once employees are onboarded, providing comprehensive and hands-on training can reduce the likelihood of complaints by ensuring that employees have the knowledge and skills they need to perform their job effectively. This can include product training, customer service training, and soft skills training.

Organizations can also promote a culture of continuous learning by offering opportunities for professional development, such as mentoring programs, workshops, and training sessions. This can help employees stay engaged and motivated, as well as increase their knowledge and skills, which can benefit both the employee and the organization.

Build a Supportive Network

Establishing trust and providing HR support can create a safe and meaningful work environment, promoting employee well-being and organizational success. Offering employees a designated point of contact for HR-related support can be an effective way to ensure that employees feel heard, valued, and supported.

Organizations can provide HR support in various ways, such as by creating an HR hotline or email address, or by designating an HR representative to support employees. This can be particularly important for sensitive issues such as discrimination or harassment.

Organizations can support employee well-being by offering resources such as mental health support, wellness programs, and employee assistance programs.

Empower Employees to Provide Feedback

Developing a clear process for providing feedback and escalating issues to company leaders can help turn negative experiences into opportunities for positive change. One approach is to encourage employees to provide solution-focused feedback that not only identifies the issue but also proposes potential solutions. To facilitate this process, you can create channels for employees to share feedback, such as anonymous feedback forms or regular check-ins with managers. These channels should be accessible and visible to all employees, with clear instructions on how to use them.

It's important to follow up on feedback and communicate the actions taken to address the issue. This can help build trust and reinforce the importance of providing feedback.

Establish Clear Communication Standards

Establishing clear communication standards and aligning them with company values can help set expectations and foster a productive work environment. Developing a communication policy or guide can provide guidelines for managing complaints, as well as outlining how team members should communicate with one another. When creating communication standards, it's important to consider factors such as tone, language, and response times. You may want to consider conducting employee surveys or focus groups to gather input and feedback on what team members value in communication.

Regularly reviewing and updating the communication policy can help ensure that it remains relevant and effective. This can include seeking input from team members, assessing how well the policy is being followed, and adjusting as needed.

Identifying and Managing Toxic Complaining in the Workplace

Despite a manager's best efforts to listen to customer complaints and escalate important feedback, venting can sometimes become toxic and harm communication in the workplace. To determine if complaining has gotten out of hand, consider if the language used is disrespectful, involves name-calling, or is focused on ongoing issues. If toxic complaining is identified, it's important to address it directly with the individual or team, referencing company values and communication standards.

When speaking with the person, it's helpful to start with empathy and ask what can be done to resolve the issue. Look for underlying causes and work together to find a solution. If the complaining continues despite efforts to change, it may be necessary to be transparent about the consequences and explore if the individual is a good fit for the role and workplace culture.

Throughout this process, it's important to involve HR to ensure appropriate support and consequences are in place. If necessary, have an open conversation about whether the individual is happy in their role and if they can continue to work reasonably despite the challenges.

Handling Complaints from Employees

When an employee comes to you with a complaint, it's important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. This can help defuse the negative emotions and turn the complaint into a constructive conversation. Here are some steps to follow when handling employee complaints:

Listen actively and create a safe space for venting

Start by showing the employee that you are receptive and willing to listen. Make eye contact, give the person your undivided attention, and maintain an open posture. If at any point you feel unsafe in the conversation, it's best to end it immediately and report the behavior to HR.

Ask clarifying questions to understand the root of the issue

To better understand the employee's feelings, ask questions like: What are you most frustrated about? What are you most angry about? What are you most worried about? Then, listen actively and offer to help problem-solve or offer support.

Offer solutions and ways to move forward

Once the employee has expressed their frustrations, ask if they would like help finding a solution. Offer to talk through potential action steps, and if necessary, suggest they speak to their manager for more guidance.

Let go of the complaint and shift the dynamic

After the conversation, it's important to let go of the negative emotions and allow for a shift in the dynamic. Encourage the employee to reset and offer support.

For managers, it's important to remember that venting can be a natural response to negative emotions. However, it's essential to approach the situation with empathy and understanding, and to respect the employee's boundaries. If you need to vent yourself, consider taking a break, practicing mindfulness, or writing down your experiences before sharing with others. Only vent to someone who has the power to make the changes you envision.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Support teams play a crucial role in any organization, but the work can be emotionally challenging. Without the proper resources and support, employees may struggle to process their experiences, leading to a negative work environment. On the other hand, a lack of communication standards can also have negative consequences. By empowering support teams, establishing clear guidelines, and promoting accountability, organizations can foster a positive and evolving culture that values and respects the contributions of all team members.


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