One of the first things you learn—usually the hard way—about being a manager is that your employees always have problems with the way things are going on the team. Typically, these problems are no big deal; that is, unless they sit unattended and festering in a stew of frustration and conspiracy. That’s when employees' issues cease to be with the situation and start pointing directly at the manager.
All they had to do was tell you that something was bugging them, right?
At each of my weekly team meetings, I set aside time for a peeve session, when my team members know it's okay for them to vent about whatever is driving them crazy. I make sure the griping is never personal or too acerbic. Obviously, serious interpersonal conflicts and other HR-type issues need to be handled offline. But otherwise, I leave the floor open for any comments team members want to make. Sometimes, their peeves are just the natural frustrations that come with earning a paycheck, but I've also found that these group feedback sessions are an invaluable source of ideas for improvement.
Some managers complain that my little gripe sessions just give my team license to take potshots at other groups. My response has always been that there's no way I can keep employees from complaining about work and their colleagues—I just want them to get in the habit of doing it out in the open and not behind closed doors, where criticisms cease to be constructive and start being divisive. Certainly, I've tweaked the practice a bit to keep these sessions from getting out of hand, but using the following tips, I'm usually pleased with the outcome.
Be patient—it takes a while to get going
Being a natural loudmouth, I'm always amazed at how long it takes team members to warm up to a weekly gripe session. However willing people may be to complain to their friends, actually saying it out loud in a room full of their peers—not to mention their boss—can be absolutely terrifying. After all, grumbling opens them up to possible criticism too, and nobody likes that. My advice is to encourage your strongest team members to take the lead by discussing fairly safe peeves for a couple of weeks while the rest of the team members catch on. If you feel the need to jump-start the process yourself, pick a known topic—inadequate documentation or vendor service, for example—that the team can largely agree on without ruffling any feathers.
Make sure real-time peeves come up at the meeting
When employees bring their problems to your attention during the week, tell them to raise their issues again during the next peeve session. I've found that this not only helps build team members' confidence, but it also gives me a chance to see if one team member's seemingly minor irritation is actually a systemic nuisance that's wasting a lot of my guys' time.
Make sure everybody shares a peeve on a regular basis
Remember: The entire rationale behind holding regular gripe sessions is the fact that your team members do have problems that need to be openly discussed. If they’re unwilling to talk about even relatively small issues in the safety of a team meeting, how will you get the real feedback you need to fix more serious problems down the road? Don't make the peeve session an obligation or graded homework assignment, but if you notice that a team member has taken a bye for a few weeks, let that person know you expect to hear something next time. Don't confuse silence with assent—nobody's that consistently happy at work.
Agree with valid peeves, but don't hesitate to play devil's advocate
Just because you honestly want to hear your team members' gripes doesn’t mean that you can or will do anything about them. Making your employees understand that every complaint won’t be addressed is probably the toughest hurdle in managing the expectations that come with gripe sessions. Of course, you'll need to rely on tact if some young admin says he doesn't see why the company can't just tell the stupid end users to run the latest freeware productivity suite on Linux desktops.
In time, you’ll find helpful allies in your veteran team members who can share their perspectives. You'll often find yourself asking your team to look at small irritants in a broader context of a project's deliverables or the company's goals. That's a great exercise, not only for your employees but also for you as the manager—never forget that the all-macro issues over which managers obsess actually live or die in the daily work of your frontline team. If there's a disconnect between the two, you need to know about it.
Make sure somebody who might take healthy exception to a peeve is in the room
One of the first adjustments I made to my gripe session formula was to invite representatives from other teams to our weekly meetings. These partners don't have a lot to say as we move through the week's status reports and business updates, but they perk up when the peeve session comes around. After all, that's the whole point of this exercise—you're showing your team that it's important to discuss issues openly with the people who are directly involved. You'll find that, after a couple of bumps, a little chaperoning is all you need to get this crucial third-party perspective in your sessions. It’s good politics too—other managers will know you're not just taking potshots at their teams.
Make team members who have peeves do something about them
This one is my favorite. If a couple of weeks go by before you follow up a team member’s gripe with an assignment based on that gripe, you're probably doing something wrong. I usually ask the employee to set up a meeting to resolve an issue with another team and have them wrap up the assignment with a memo or a report at the next team meeting. This is a perfect exercise in constructive communication: Identify a problem, discuss it openly, and fix it.
Set time aside after the meeting to follow up
I usually spend 30 minutes on the day of my weekly meeting on brief follow-ups with team members who I sense have issues they didn't want to discuss during the gripe session. If appropriate, I encourage the employees to speak up at the next meeting, but often I find that the issue really does need more discreet attention. If nothing else, just the cultural exercise of having my guys complain in a controlled environment helps me spot individual morale problems.
You'll see the ultimate benefit of teaching your guys to gripe constructively when they start doing it outside the team meeting with their peers and internal clients. It's one of those soft skills you can't measure. But I credit my team’s little peeve sessions for much of the professional growth I've seen in some fairly challenging employees with reputations for being ill-tempered or combative. Complaining is just like any part of work—if you’re going to do it, do it right.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.