<i>Dear Workforce</i> How to Deal With Bickering and Complaining

January 9, 2001

I'm the Personnel Officer for a smalllocal government. Although this isn't my only responsibility, (I also amthe Chief Administrative Officer), I do feel that dealing with aless-than-satisfied unionized workforce takes a large percentage of my time,and gives me the most concern for the overall health of our organization.  

My quandary is that our board is quiteresponsive to employee concerns with their compensation and other day-to-dayissues. In fact, we have recently given one of our high-skill areadepartments quite a substantial raise do to retention problems. Thesepeople still complain and bicker about things!!   

Additionally, our workers seem allpredisposed to discuss their issues and concerns with "outsiders" orboard members before sitting down with their supervisor or myself to addresstheir problems. When this happens, managers get resentful and subsequentlyless interested in dealing with some of their concerns. 

Finally, some of our managers seem soworkforce-oriented that other managers get quite resentful. Some managersdon't allow their employees to follow policies and procedures or are just more"relaxed" about protocol than others. This causes dissentionamongst and between managers of each department because no cohesive method ofmanagement can be adhered to and followed. We're always putting out firesrather than planning and then following the plan.  

It's not that we don't educate ourmanagers either. We've spent a lot of money on supervisory trainingetc...and although our managers know what to do…they don't do it because theydon't want to look unpopular to their employees. 

--Vincent Luce 

A Dear Vincent,

Firstof all, any solution provided is likely to be somewhat simplistic to what isclearly a complex problem. Having said that, my long-distance take on the issueis that there are four separate, albeit related, issues:

  • Employeedissatisfaction and complaining
  • Thetendency of employees to go to the board and other outsiders
  • Theresponse of the board to employee complaints
  • Consistencyamong managers


Hereare some thoughts on each of these issues:


Complaining:Employees (and people in general, for that matter) appear to spend unproductiveenergy complaining when there isn’t a productive outlet for theirdissatisfaction. The key here is to create vehicles (labor managementcommittees, for example) where real issues over which the organization hascontrol can be raised and positive action accomplished toward some resolution.The key is to channel the energy into solving problems, rather than justcomplaining about them.


Goingto outsiders:Similarly, complainers need to address their issues to an appropriate audience.Here, I would suggest that you investigate why people are unwilling to discusstheir issues and concerns with the "right people." Do they think thatthese individuals don’t have the authority or power? Have these individualsindicated, perhaps in some subtle ways, that they’re not interested?


Boardresponse:While you do not have control over all of the "outsiders," you do havesome impact on organizational components such as your board. The board’sresponse needs to be a consistent message that problems should be resolved atthe lowest, most appropriate level. Do not do what one of my clients did whenmembers of a particular department were complaining to the board. The boardpassed a resolution forbidding employees to speak to the board. What theemployees did in response was to send their spouses as their emissaries!


Consistency:Finally, the issue of managerial consistency is an organizational leadershipissue. The chief administrative officer and the leadership team need to makesure they are "on the same page" in terms of policies and procedures.This is an integral part of managerial accountability. Managers need to answerto the chief administrative officer and each other. If, on the other hand, thereare policies or procedures that are unnecessary or unhelpful, then this is thegroup to change them.


Ihope you find some merit in these suggestions. These are based on an underlyingbelief that people want to do a good job and that there is greater satisfactionin providing solutions than complaining about problems. The key is to engagepeople in the solutions.  

SOURCE: Harry Brull, senior vice president, public sector services, forMinneapolis, MN-based Personnel Decisions International. 

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