If you run a company full of smart people, they will find faults and mistakes everywhere, they’ll complain.
It can become destructive, though, if it evolves into a culture of complaint.
I learned this lesson when I had my first experience working as a consultant, for a software start-up called Anxiety Technology (not their real name). As you can tell from the name, the founders had high expectations of their own success – expectations which were unrealized when the company closed down in the late ‘90s.
It had been packed with many brilliant people, many of whom went on to achieve successes elsewhere. But this company was destroyed by its own internal anxiety-filled demons. Everyone found fault with corporate strategy, tactics, products, sales, marketing, right down to the Standard Operating Procedure guidelines for taking a shower on company premises. (No, I’m not joking.)
At first, I found the company’s openness exhilarating. How democratic that everyone could speak their mind! But after a year or so, I came to see that everyone spent more time arguing about abstractions than producing profits.
The company became what venture capitalists call “the living dead” – bringing in enough revenue to cover costs but never building a company that anyone would want to buy. The place was a gaggle of individuals that just could not get it together to become a high performing team.
Later, I realized the fatal flaw lay in chronic complaining but not offering solutions: They didn’t distinguish between the faults that have to be fixed and the faults you can’t afford the time to fix.
The memory haunted me when I started my leadership consulting company which I call Subject2Change because in my experience everything is subject to change. Kinda like the “best laid plans of mice and men” thing.
Determined to transform whining into innovation, I introduced a rule that I demanded of my clients: all complaints to me had to be accompanied by at least one proposed solution. The rule has been a big success.
- CEO’s like to whine too. they particularly like to complain and blame outside consultants. So when they have to come up with a solution to their whine it makes my job easier – or they simply fire me. Which I regard as a favour. They also like asking people to do the same.
- It made people consider why things were the way they were, and what the costs of fixing them might be. Many aspects of a business aren’t perfect but just aren’t worth fixing. The cost, in terms of time, attention and resources, is too high, the return too slight. But it takes time for a leader to explain that, and it’s better if your employees figure it out for themselves. They learn to prioritize, just as you have had to.
- It helped me to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Nothing is more important in running a business than creating an environment in which everyone feels welcome to raise questions, concerns and doubts. If you create the conditions in which legitimate concerns are raised easily, each employee is an early warning system. AND you also want everyone focused on fixing the faults that have real impact on people, process and profit.
- It generated good ideas. Instead of programmers complaining that the sales team made impossible promises, they asked to go on sales calls to ensure promises were practical. That didn’t just save a lot of anger and disappointment; it meant we could also offer easy product enhancements the sales team had never dreamed of.
- It made every employee act and feel like an owner. They took responsibility for a business they felt invested in, rather than behaving like whining children.
So many companies become the walking dead when they focus on complaints rather than solutions.
Does your company have a culture of complaint? If it does, what are you doing about it?
Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD., DipC.
Author: Leadership for Einsteins: How Smart Leaders Bring Out the Genius in People
Account-Ability: The Science of Human Performance — The Skill &Will of Getting Things Done
“Knowing yourself is as important, if not more important, than knowing your business. Using the science behind human performance, Dr. Sellner shows you how to identify your strengths and weaknesses as a leader; you can then leverage this new awareness to bring out the very best in all of your employees as well as yourself!”
~Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times and global bestseller, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and dozens of other books. Also a Thinkers 50 Top Ten Global Business Thinker and top-ranked executive coach.