The Necessity of Complaint

An interesting piece recently in one of the Canadian national newspapers made the case for complaint – suggesting that it is actually important to both offer complaint and to receive it as something essential to the quality of our shares lives and our shared work.  This was a good reminder.  Sure, we are inclined to suggest that “complainers” – said with a particular tone of voice – are negative and discouraging and no different than a whiner.   And yet, it merits saying:  complaint in itself is essential if we are going to do good work. 

Think of it this way.   Sure, there are those for whom their default mode is complaint.  Nothing is ever right or adequate and they go through their days in a perpetual state of feeling hard done by or that nothing is as good as they think it could be or should be.   They display a posture of entitlement where everything, it seems, is below standard or their expectations.   Nothing satisfies them.   Fine; we know about these people and we can easily suggest to them that perhaps gratitude is a better posture or disposition and that the world does no revolve around them.   But then, what about those whose complaint is offered not as the norm but as a very legitimate means by which an observation or suggestion is an essential contribution – something that when it is received actually improves the quality of a product or a service.

From this perspective, we actually want complaints.   We want those whom we serve to give us feedback and observations and suggestions on the way that things might be done better.   If we are committed to excellence and if we assume we cannot see or recognize all that needs to be done or could be done to improve the quality or character of our functioning, then we actually invite the complaint:  we recognize that this kind of communication is essential to our capacity to do our work well.   If something is not working as well as it could, tell us!  If something about the way that our communication is happening is not as fruitful as it might be, then let us know.   Sure, we do not need caustic criticism.  And there are those who view it as their god-given mandate in life to point out all the ways that we are not very good at what we do.   But, let’s not then just assume that this means that every complaint is to be dismissed.   Constructive complaint is essential to our capacity to do our work well.  So, when it comes, whether or not it is solicited, find ways to make it a learning opportunity and a call to greater effectiveness in the quality of our work.   Thus we need to avoid the propensity to get defensive every time it seems that a complain it coming our way.  Hear them out; there might be a nugget or a whole gold bar of truth in that complaint.

And when we offer complaint, let’s do it graciously – noting that a product or service was not quite up to standards.  It can be a quiet word offered sincerely but still with clarity.   It is not our default mode; our complaint will have more traction if it is offered in the context of genuine appreciation for what is good and what is working.  But, we assume that one and all want to do this better.  And we offer our complaint with that as our basic premise.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.