The old saying “never complain, never explain” could be changed to “never blame, never complain”, but would people ever do this? Of course not.
Blaming and complaining causes stress
We all do our best, but standards and expectations vary. It often boils down to the fact that while people might share a common language, there are codes, norms and idiomatic shortcuts within those languages that might not be shared. Before you know it, someone’s complaining about another person’s behaviour or work performance, or there’s a client determined to blame you because of a misunderstanding. What’s the effect of all this? People start to stress and it’s contagious; very quickly, conflicts erupt, even between those who normally get along well.
Blame can become a nasty twist on a complaint. Some people like to point the finger at who has caused a problem and it can get in the way of a quick resolution. Blaming happens in a culture where it is not discouraged; complaining is constructive and should be encouraged.
Complaining and blaming tend to thrive in high-pressure, quick turnaround environments where a lot rides on the outcomes. Problems arise when everyone is in overdrive, just so targets and deadlines are met, often with too few people to deliver and provide service. When managers use verbal whips, everyone can end up at each other’s throats.
What to do about blamers and complainers? Here are some tips for how to create a culture of constructive feedback in your workplace.
Manage yourself and your reactions
If you’re in charge, never ever blame! And instead of complaining, outline problems and how they might be resolved. This is essential. Why, you might be thinking? (“It’s my project, I’m doing my best and these people are making everything worse with their attitude”.) Well, if you start to catch the bug, you will eventually dissolve into a pile of shrieking goo. But where did the problem possibly begin? Take a good look at yourself. Bragging about being a ‘high-performer under stress who copes well with panic’ type person is likely to achieve one thing only – nearly everyone else will adopt the ‘work in midst of panic’ approach, then complain and blame.
Make time to work out plans and contingencies, and remember staff will mostly cooperate positively if you are positive, clear, helpful and resourceful. If you’re not in charge and working alongside such people, it’s the same thing. It will be tough at times and you might be tempted to lash out, but stay controlled and civil. When the heat dies down, it’ll be your exemplary stance that is remembered and (hopefully) appreciated and rewarded.
Be grateful you are hearing it
What if you don’t relish hearing blame and complaints? You might even be someone who avoids voicing any negativity. You might wonder how people get by in life with such negativity. Squeaky wheels exist (most of the time) for very good reason: there is something wrong that needs attention. Stop what you’re doing and sit down with those raising concerns and gripes. Ask them to discuss matters with you as calmly and dispassionately as possible, and you in turn will listen. Together you will determine actions to fix the issues.
Regularly meet with the key commentators in your team, and especially any regular complainers to review what they see as issues. Constructive feedback is healthy: welcome their complaints and suggestions for change; encourage complaints and discourage blaming; ask them what they want done differently, so complaints are paired with suggestions to improve. You have to be glad they are voicing issues that give you the opportunity to improve the performance of your team.
Help them gain balanced perspective
Regularly review work once it’s been completed. Ask those people who were annoyed whether they believe the situation is improved, whether new strategies or processes have worked. Ask was it fair (the anti-dote to blaming). If no, more work needs doing on discussing what is not working. It’s necessary ‘maintenance’, until you’ve arrived, together, at the root issue that’s underlying the ongoing crisis.
If the situation is improving, you can all debrief and agree that there’s a number of ways to evolve some equilibrium, or if you like, a more balanced perspective for the future. You’ll find that in the relief that follows the settling of a problem or drama, people will be happier to cooperate and collaborate. But a plan for managing a crisis needs to be devised, so that people are aware of what to do in future.
Accept responsibility, explore changes
If you’re dealing with a client who complains or worse still blames, no matter how ‘wrong’ you believe their behaviour to be (and how you wish you could fight back), the responsibility for delivering the outcome nevertheless rests with you and your team. Be willing to discuss (calmly and politely) what is happening, and what can be done to address it. There is likely some valid issue that needs to be immediately sorted – don’t let it escalate.
If you’re wrong, accept responsibility and say so. Apologise for the problem or issue. Explore and offer options and decide on best option(s) together. List the agreed actions and changes so that the client knows what to expect, when to expect it and importantly, any variations in the final costings and deliverables. Discussing all and any potential expectations is at the heart of resolution. Often timing and immediacy are the biggest issues. Don’t create the impression you are inconvenienced by ‘extra’ work to resolve issues. Even the biggest blamer and complainer can become your best advocate.
Give constructive feedback
When people don’t know each other well in work situations and team environments, the above forms part of the ‘social contract’ that is continuously devised and negotiated until the two sides have a good working relationship. Constructive feedback (spelled out clearly, receptively, realistically and constructively) is essential for diminishing potential crossed wires.
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Don’t just give constructive feedback, be prepared and willing to hear it. Draw on mutual skills and qualities to help resolve problems. Drill down where needed and be very specific, not vague generalities. Commend openness to give and receive feedback, especially early in a problem situation as it is so much easier to manage before an escalation.
Take an approach that helps dispel as much of the negativity as possible without sidelining it. Recognise how it starts and what a team or working relationship must do to prevent matters escalating.