Understanding staff complaints

Using staff complaints to make your organization great

Posted in Good managerial habits
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Staff complains, and managers listen. But understanding staff complaints and then properly interpreting them is one of the key things that good managers do.

Over the years, I have noticed predictable patterns in those complaints and why they happen. For example, complaints increase whenever (1) time demands increase, (2) there is a change in relationship patterns, or (3) when compensation is adjusted. Time, relationships, and money define an employee’s experience of a job. To change one of those areas is to change the job. Reactions always follow.

This is not to say there is something wrong with raising staff complaints. We need to hear the feedback in order to understand our organization. If a blister forms on my foot, should I complain about the pain or adjust my shoe? We need to listen, hear, interpret, and respond appropriately.

Deeper message?

And what is the deeper message of an employee complaint? At least two things. First, no one likes change. We get comfortable and are not eager to adjust once we are settled. Complaints can just highlight the discomfort go change.

Or second, staff complaints arise because they are unsure how this change is good for them. In other words, we managers have inadequately explained why the change benefits the employee. Even if that employee payoff is a rather abstract concept like “improving quality”, they need to hear it, probably multiple times. We will come back to this later in this post. Before we do, let’s look at the types of complaints and why they do.

Complaints about time

When new employees begin, they focus on learning the job patterns. Eventually, those patterns become the norm, i.e. the “way things are done here.” And once that norm is set, change is often resisted. If managers push harder, complaints increase. This is especially true when the new change requires more employee time.

In private mental health practice, clinician pay is based on the money collected from client fees. Collections determine pay. Therefore therapists want non-billable activities kept to a minimum. And yet, for a business to thrive, therapists must do several additional time-consuming tasks. They must complete session records, make collateral contacts with referrers, participate in meetings, connect with referrers in the community, etc. And none of that time is billable.

There is a recent trend in our area for insurance companies to require the coordination of care with each client’s Primary Care Physician (PCP). What used to be recommended is now becoming mandatory. Insurance companies correctly see coordinating with PCPs as part of good patient care. Yet they will not get paid for the time it takes to do this. And so, who is? No one. The time spent on these tasks will go unpaid. In my view, insurance companies are justified, and so are the clinicians. And it will be the managers who will hear the complaints.

Staff complain when work relationships change

Clinicians join a practice at specific points in history. Yet all organizations are constantly adjusting. The local environment changes. Processes are reorganized in response. Staff comes and go; relationships change as new roles are defined. All is fluid. And, of course, staff react to each of these changes. Inevitably some will like the old ways better.

Staff become comfortable with their local set of relationships. Yet those relationships change in response to growth, reassignment of job assignments, or even whose office is next to mine. But when there are too many changes all at once, complaints are certain to arise.

Changes affecting take-home pay

I remember an attorney warning me that “changes in compensation are the most dangerous to your organization.” He was right. In the early days, I made several changes to compensation–I think five in all.  I was experimenting–learning how to balance competing interests and still succeed financially. We eventually got a formula that worked and has stayed with those parameters for the last 25 years. But it was painful for those who went through the many compensation changes. I’m sure it led to some departures.

Furthermore, compensation changes perceived in the owner’s or organization’s favor will need special care. Someone will always see a new plan as unfair. Yet when a change is seen as necessary for the viability of the organization, it is usually embraced by most. Ultimately it comes down to the ability of the employee to trust that the decision-makers are fair in how they balance competing interests. Most employees will get there. Some cannot.

Embracing staff complaints

As leaders, we can do some things that help. We can empathize with the stress of changes. We can explain why the changes have both up and downsides.

Yet maybe most important is our attitude about a complaint. In my experience, most employees do not needlessly complain. They complain in order to change things for the better. (To deal with those who are chronic complainers, read this post: Addition by subtraction: Types of difficult employees.) Managers do best when we invite and listen to complaints.

Some principles to guide us

And when employee complaints are coming, I have found some principles that help me understand and manage them.

First, for any upcoming change, identify who you believe will have the greatest adjustment difficulty. Try to understand the basis of their reactions. Try to think in terms that will make sense to your employees.

Second, take the time to sort out your rationale for the change you are outlining. Clearly articulate it for yourself. If it is a major change, write out all the reasons why this change is necessary. Especially focusing on ways that the employee gains something. As I said earlier, even vague concepts like “improving excellence,” “company stability,” or “increasing the strength of our connections to our community” need to tie back to how this helps the employee. Obviously, the clearer your rationale, the easier it is to explain to others.

Third, introduce the change in one-on-one meetings. Begin with those especially affected by the proposed change. And have those discussions prior to releasing the information to the wider staff. The goal is to minimize surprises. Always deliver bad news in person, never in a meeting.


How we handle the news of a change will either increase employees’ confidence in our leadership or undermine it. How you understand staff complaints can make all the difference.

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