What Do You Do When People Complain about You?

Leaders often get defensive when people complain. The complaints may come directly or indirectly; they may be specific or general. Someone may say, “People are saying–” Or, “Susan said to me–” Or, less frequently they may say directly, “I think–”

Complaints often provoke anxious responses. Sometimes we rigidly insist on staying on track, without considering the complaint. Or we adapt too readily, asking in effect, “What can I do to make you happy?” Both approaches can get in the way of achieving our goals: a rigid response can lead us into head-to-head conflict unnecessarily, and an adaptive response can reduce our efforts to the lowest common denominator, trying to please everyone.

A thoughtful response to complaints is better for everyone. It’s important to remember that complaints are rarely about the content raised, whether someone thinks you are too busy, too long-winded, not friendly enough, too organized, too disorganized, or any of a hundred items that might be raised about a leader. Rather, they are about the relationship the complainer has with the leader and with the group, and with what is going on in the group as a whole. Edwin Friedman used to say, “Criticism is a form of pursuit.” People who are very critical want to have some kind of relationship with the leader. Recognizing this fact can lower your anxiety, and help you respond more thoughtfully. Remember, the complaint is not really about you.

Here are some tips for handling complaints that come your way:

1. Don’t get defensive. Easier said than done, I know. If you can manage your automatic defensive response, the complaints are less likely to spiral out of control. Work on your relationship with the complainer without trying to convince them they are wrong about you.

2. Be grateful. If there were no complaints, you might not be taking enough stands as a leader. Complaints are part of the pushback all leaders can expect when they move forward with an initiative: they are the price of progress.

3. Don’t panic about third-party complaints. Consider the source: someone who often reports of what others think is not the most mature person. Apply tip number 1, and don’t get defensive.

4. Take a look at yourself while you’re at it. We all have weaknesses. If you genuinely made a mistake or need to work on a specific area, apologize.

(Thanks to reader Rebecca Maccini for raising this issue in a comment.)

4 replies on “What Do You Do When People Complain about You?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Amy, thanks for your thoughtful question. As you describe this situation, there’s plenty going on here that has nothing to do with you. One of the suggestions I make above is not to get defensive, which is of course, far easier said than done. A question I would have is, does the person who spoke to you actually supervise you, or have some kind of authority over you, or not? A possible option might be to go directly to your boss, say you’ve been given this feedback and that you want to do a good job, and you would like your boss’ perspective. That would take some nerve, I know. Another option might be to keep doing your job as calmly as possible, making sure you connect with your co-workers along the way.

    That said, it is true that some work situations are simply unworkable. If you think through your other employment options, it will help you keep your head while you research whether this situation will work for you. Staying in “research mode” can help calm you down. Every work situation is fascinating in one way or another.

  • Amy

    I was reprimanded at work today by someone who reports to our boss. She said, “the staff has some concerns that I need to discuss with you.” I know I have performed my job duties exquisitely, so I was floored. I am new to this job (1 month) and have walked into a wasp’s nest of weird work dynamics, there is nepostism an insecurity involved. I was told that I come off as “too business like and not friendly enough” and was told that my job was in jeopardy.

    I felt like the wind was knocked out of me. I have been very nice to my coworkers and respectful of the ones that have been there longer. I just think that they like their little “family” the way that it is and they want me out. I have NEVER experienced this at any job I have ever had (and, I have been working for 20 years!)

    I thanked my ‘informant’ for the constructive criticism and told her I would work on it, but she did not seem satisfied with my response.

    Any thoughts, advice?

  • Jason Gamble

    One way that I’ve used is to begin the reply with “Thank you for caring enough about (your church, my preaching, our mission, etc.) to bring up this concern.” I then try to follow up with statements that define myself, my position, or my real role without criticizing the other.
    Friedman’s right, and this was one of the best realizations out of that book for me, that compliments and criticism are both forms of pursuit.
    It’s certainly true that the relationship in question will be an important one, but let us be attentive to the relationships that seem devoid of pursuit in our emotional fields – the ones who don’t care enough to say ‘peep’ (the distant or cut-off ones). Though they get little press, they are often in need of the same level of self-defining.


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