Don't Give Gripes Traction by Ignoring Them

By Noelle Nelson Mar 3, 2008

Too often, managers sweep gripes under the rug or blame the disgruntled employee for a justifiable complaint. Then, complaints tend to reach a fever pitch because unhappy employees believe their concerns haven't been heard. That's why it's critical to give employees opportunities to express concerns and grievances safely and without fear of reprisals.

The first trick is to listen, but listening openly to employee grievances is easier said than done. While managers may want to believe that work issues can be addressed without dealing with an employee's feelings, it's not the case. It only causes the employee to feel more upset. Consider the following scenario:

Employee: "I've had it! Everyone is bombarding me with work to the point where there's no way I can finish or make people happy. It's driving me crazy. Can you tell people I'm overloaded and they can't expect me to get their job finished right away?"

Manager: "Relax. I'll deal with it when I get a minute."

Employee: "Relax? There's no way I can get all this done. I bet I have 10 e-mails waiting for me by the time I walk back to my desk-all people demanding. . ."

Manager: (interrupting): "Like I told you, I'll take care of it."

Employee: "I hope so, because if they keep pushing me …"

Manager: "That's enough."

Employee: "You don't have to yell at me, too!"

This outcome doesn't please anyone, especially because people rarely calm down when they're told to "relax." The employee believes that his boss was only listening half-heartedly and that nothing will change. The manager is upset because he had to listen to an unhappy employee who was unwilling to accept his pat answers and leave.

When managers accept the employee's frustrations and value them, it puts the discussion on a positive note. A conversation in this style would follow along these lines:

Employee: "I've had it! Everyone is bombarding me with work to the point where there's no way I can finish or make people happy. It's driving me crazy. Can you tell people I'm overloaded and they can't expect me to get their job finished right away?"

Manager: "It can be very frustrating."

Employee: "I'll say! I don't know how much more I can take."

Manager: "Work shouldn't make you crazy. Let me see how I can help, and I'll let you know what I can do."

Employee: "Okay. That would be a big help. Thanks."

Manager: "You're welcome. Thanks for letting me know about this."

This type of interaction is a positive experience for both parties. The employee feels someone is finally listening, and the manager is able to calm the employee and promise a plan for action. Their expectations are in sync. Note that the manager did not attempt to side with the employee, speak badly of other employees or moan about the work environment. The manager simply acknowledged the employee's emotions. The employee immediately appreciated the acknowledgment and believed the manager was sincere in the promise to look into the situation. Of course, the manager must follow through on those promises.

Next, remember that it's not just what you say, it's how you say it—through verbal and nonverbal clues. If you neglect to nod your head or say "uh-huh" periodically while your employee is speaking, the employee may think you haven't heard a word, no matter how carefully you were listening. By saying "uh-huh" or "I see" or nodding your head occasionally, you reassure your employee that you are listening and interested, especially after the employee has made a specific point.

You'll also convey respect and consideration by focusing your attention directly on your employees while they are expressing their grievances. Try these tips to stay focused:

  • Resist the temptation to jump in with judgments and evaluations.
  • Do not take phone calls or allow other interruptions to distract you. Even if you think the interruption will last less than a minute, to employees that minute represents a shift in your focus and makes them wonder about their true importance to you.
  • If you have a distracting thought—something that does not concern the matter at hand—mentally take the thought and put it in your back pocket, knowing you can retrieve it later at an appropriate time. Once you've finished the interaction with your employee, take a moment to retrieve your back-pocket thoughts. Immediately jot them down on a piece of paper so you remember to deal with them at an appropriate time.

Some employees are simply chronic complainers. Negative employees, without being overtly angry, seem to have major chips on their shoulders, which makes working with them particularly challenging. Keep this checklist in mind:

  • Don't take it personally. When someone has a negative mind-set virtually all of the time, that negativity has nothing to do with you. It's simply the filter through which that individual chooses to experience the world.
  • Stay focused on the problem. Acknowledge the employee's complaint in a neutral, calm way at the beginning of an interaction and then quickly shift focus to the business at hand.
  • Maintain a businesslike demeanor. Don't make jokes or try to get the person to lighten up. It isn't your job to cheer someone up. Respecting a negative mind-set, in which such individuals feel totally justified, is what will earn their (grudging) trust and cooperation.
The operative word is "respect." The employee's negative attitude is to be respected but not accepted. Here's an example of how to do that:

Employee: "Having to come all the way out here just to attend this training is a real nuisance. I know all this stuff already anyway. Plus the traffic is awful, I couldn't find anywhere decent to park, and I had to walk like a mile. I guess now you want me to fill out another bunch of forms."

Manager: "Well, traffic sure can be difficult. It doesn't make our parking situation any easier, that's for sure. Please sign the forms here once you've looked them over."

The manager didn't just swallow the employee's grousing; he simply reflected what is true for all of us—traffic is often difficult, and parking can be problematic. He then zeroed in on the task, without attempting to make the employee feel better, which probably wouldn't work anyway and certainly wasn't germane to the situation. When you deal with a negative employee in a respectful yet businesslike manner, you often can defuse their complaining. At least they will feel heard and thus valued to some extent, reducing the tension of the situation.

Every manager is on the listening side of employee complaints—it comes with the job. While managers can implement changes that will reduce the number of grievances, you'll never eliminate complaints. Perceptive managers see grievances not as negatives but as a way to improve employee relations, morale and company loyalty.

Noelle Nelson, M.D., is a clinical psychologist, business trial consultant, international speaker, seminar leader and author of nine books. Her most recent book is The Power of Appreciation in Business: How an Obsession with value Increases Performance, Productivity and Profits (MindLab Publishing, 2005). Nelson has appeared on CBS's "The Early Show," Fox News and CNN, and she has been quoted in numerous business publications. She can be reached at her web site at

Terms of Use: © 2007 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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