By Lesley MaceyakApril 7, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (April 7, 2016) -- Everybody in the working world has a grumbler in their life.
You know the type … unhappy with management, unfriendly to co-workers, resistant to new ideas, constantly sulking about assigned tasks.
The impact of these gloomy gusses can be significant. Nationally recognized career coach and small-business advocate Trevor Blake noted in a Fortune Magazine article, "Constant exposure to complaints will reinforce negative thinking, and (employee) behavior is likely to change to fit those negative perceptions."
By "bringing everybody down," a grumbler can reduce productivity, increase mistakes and employee absences, discourage the team from contributing new ideas and, as noted by Equal Employment Opportunity Office Director Camille Harvey in a Feb. 18 Traveller article (available online at www.ftleetraveller.com), subject the organization to official complaints.
"At Fort Lee, the most common (EEO) issues are allegations of harassment (non-sexual) and a hostile work environment," Harvey said. "The causes … vary from case-to-case. Allegations range from a breakdown in communication between co-workers to employees feeling their supervisors are doing things to make their environment hostile."
Staving off employee negativity requires a consistent and deliberate plan of attack, emphasized Jose Hernandez, director of the Quartermaster School's Petroleum and Water Department. He has a composite staff of 240 workers who contribute to the training of about 7,500 students a year in nine separate QM military occupational courses.
A 45-minute monthly office meeting for key supervisors in the organization is one way he "gets complaints out in the open" before they become a bigger issue. During a recent session, the group watched a short training film based on the New York Times business bestseller book, "Who Moved My Cheese," by Spencer Johnson. The cheese is the author's metaphor for what one wants to have in one's job or life. The story aims to show how the impact of change can be significant and may require new adaptation strategies -- key points that attendees quickly zeroed in on and discussed at length, often noting how it could apply to their worksites.
"This approach (regular mentorship and train-the-trainer sessions) has always been an effective teambuilding tool," Hernandez noted. "In this case, it helps us identify potential problems and get a handle on them before they affect morale and productivity. By getting proactively involved, we build happier teams and reduce complaints to a minimum."
When a situation does get antagonistic in PWD-land, Hernandez said he "deals with the complaint, not the complainer." The process starts with a basic set of questions: is it valid; is it at his level; can he coach the individual to deal with it or identify a work-around?
"I find time to listen to the issues, validate or clarify perceptions, and provide feedback," he said. "We cannot ignore problems. That's the biggest mistake supervisors and leaders can make along with the attitude employees should just suck it up and get it done. A lot more can be accomplished by shaping attitudes and fixing negative issues."
Capt. Don Purnell is the commander of Whiskey Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion. He regularly oversees a few hundred Soldiers in advanced individual training and a small staff of cadre, including platoon sergeants and admin personnel. Complaints are inevitable in his world where teens and 20-somethings are still adapting to Army life.
"It really gives you a different perspective on why people complain," Purnell said. "Perception is, by far, the biggest contributor, but there are individuals who are just chronic complainers … they may not understand or care that what is perceived from one foxhole will look totally different from a neighboring foxhole."
Hearing them out is the best way to get to the root of the problem, he continued.
"If there is truly something wrong I can affect, then I want to know," Purnell said. "Chronic complainers require a bit more finesse. Being mindful of my position, I want my subordinates to know I'm listening while careful not to give the perception of agreement, which could empower the negativity."
Using the analogy of a garbage truck picking up and offloading unwanted objects, the captain underscored the importance of sifting through the clutter for the truly valuable finds. "I feel it's my job as a leader to figure out whether they are coming to pour into me something good I can use for the organization or leaving junk in an attempt to cloud the issues and cause distraction."
Purnell elaborated on the factors typically leading
"Everything we do requires change," he said. "Those of us in the military change our lifestyle every time we PCS, deploy, take on a new assignment, and so on. As an Army team we deal with new policies, training requirements, budget constraints ... it's a very stressful environment."
Generational attitudes need to be considered as well. Someone who grew up in the working-class world of the 1970s and '80s -- Purnell used the analogy, "if you wanted a book, you drove to the library and checked it out" -- is going to see things differently than the digital generation -- any book is accessible with the tap of a tablet or cellphone icon.
"The bottom line is not expecting younger (or older) Soldiers or employees to think like I do, and understanding I have to adapt to their viewpoint just as much as they are accepting mine," Purnell observed. "We must acknowledge perceptual differences, find common ground and move forward to get the job done."
A wealth of information can be found online for not only supervisors dealing with disgruntled worker situations but also people who are feeling the need to kick up a fuss. In the latter category, author Guy Winch offers the following advice in a column posted on www.psychologytoday.com.
"Before you complain, get your anger under control," he advised. "You may have a right to be (upset), but if you spatter hot fury all over the recipient of a complaint, he or she will focus more on your venom than on helping you. Remember, you want to achieve a goal, not just vent."
On the other side of the coin, Winch and other experts offer a few suggestions for dealing with legitimate complaints. First, avoid attempts to convince the disgruntled individual things are "not as bad as he or she thinks" or suggest the person is "over-reacting" to the situation. It's the sort of response that escalates emotion and spawns additional tirades that can cloud the issue.
Second, ask questions and get clarification. Active listening equals validation to the person making a complaint. It also will help the supervisor get to the meat of the issue so the right decisions can be made to remedy the situation or steer the employee in the right direction.
Lastly, avoid knee-jerk responses or solutions. The "I-want-you-to-play-nice" comment belittles the complainer, and immediately promising to make changes is tantamount to admitting there is a problem where one may not actually exist.
If a Team Lee member has a legitimate complaint that does not fall within the purview of their chain of command, there are helpful resources available such as the Interactive Customer Evaluation, or ICE, system. It is a web-based tool that collects feedback on services provided by various organizations throughout the Department of Defense. Users can remain anonymous, however, providing point of contact information is the best way to ensure a response from the agency to which the comment is targeted. To find out more, visit lee.army.mil and click on the ICE logo at the bottom of the page.
Professional assessment and education services also are available. Mary Claiborne-Whiting, the garrison's Employee Assistance Professional, can provide "confidential information support and referral services that include tools and resources to help maximize productivity and meet the challenges of modern life." The EAP program is open to civilians, military family members and retirees who have problems affecting their well-being and/or ability to perform their jobs.
"I do not see people as complainers, but individuals who need to be heard so they don't feel like they're stuck," Claiborne-Whiting said. "That's really the best approach to this issue. If we don't listen to what people have to say, we might miss something really important."
Claiborne-Whiting can be contacted at (804) 734-9693.