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Why The Annoying Complainer in Your Organization Might Be Your Most Valuable Asset

Early in my career as a big firm associate I was complaining to a mentor about how my firm was handling something. I still remember his advice to me. He told me to shut up, keep my head down, and avoid complaining too much. No one likes a whiner he said.

Many of you have probably received similar advice. I have never been particularly great at following that advice. I am passionate about making my organizations the best they can be. Later in my career an organizational leader asked me what he could do better and I gave him some direct but honest feedback. My immediate boss came to see me the next day to let me know that the honest feedback was not appreciated even though it seemed to me it had been invited.

The truth is that most of us prefer not to hear criticism. Organizational leaders often ask for feedback, but what they are often asking is, “please confirm for me that I am doing a good job.” I have managed other professionals and I admit that it was not always fun for me to receive constructive criticism. We all have a natural tendency to marginalize people we perceive as negative. We marginalize them even more if a person without great interpersonal skills delivers the criticism.

However, it turns out the “negative” people, the ones who are often complaining, may be some of the most valuable people in your organization. In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, Adam Grant explains why these negative people are so important.

Grant begins by exploring why people make the choice to speak up and complain about something:

Fundamentally, these choices are based upon feelings of control and commitment. Do you believe you can effect change, and do you care enough to try? If you believe you’re stuck with the status quo, you’ll choose neglect when you’re not committed, and persistence when you are. If you do feel you can make a difference, but you aren’t committed to the person, country, or organization, you’ll leave. Only when you believe your actions matter AND care deeply will you consider speaking up.
Originals at 80.

Think about that for a moment. A “no news is good news” management philosophy may be totally wrong. If you punish people for speaking out they may disconnect and simply “persist”. Or, their commitment to your organization disappears and they may leave. Or, worst of all, they may drift into neglect of their work.

The “complainers” are valuable precisely because their complaints show they are committed and believe they can help make things better. They want to help even if the entry point to helping comes in the form of a complaint. Ironically, the people who are often marginalized probably care more about the organization than those who are not making waves.

Of course, complaints are only productive if management knows how to engage and to help things improve. Sometimes fixing the complaint is not in line with the organizations long-term goals. But, the fundamental point is that the person complaining is showing you something valuable about he or she views the relationship with your organization. Even if you cannot address the basis of the complaint, you want to engage with the person to make clear you appreciate her commitment to the organization.

Lawyers can be pretty good complainers. We know how to argue our point of view and we tend to have critical eye for finding flaws. Law firm leaders often get plenty of complaints. No wonder, then, that many law firms seek to tamp down critics. At the same time, if tamping down the critics means you increase disengagement, you may just be driving good people out of the organization. It is probably in your own best interests to engage those critics instead and, where appropriate, co-opt them into helping to solve the complaint.

So, the next time someone comes to you with a complaint, you might want to embrace the hidden value in that complaint. The person doing the complaining is probably someone who really cares about your organization, believes she can make it better, and is committed to helping you. Whether you end up fixing the complaint or not, those are employees worth keeping.

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