Imagine that a major funder has created a new requirement to collect more data, but implicitly, is also communicating that the numbers of people served must not drop, nor is there any new funds to implement this new requirement.   There is also an implied, “we’ll be measuring you” which in turn, creates some trepidation.

Sound familiar?

This, or a version of this, is happening in many different jurisdictions, in many different sectors. There are many more of these kinds of issues that provoke this kind of complaining:

  • increase filing of reports and completed paperwork
  • the system for intake and/or scheduling of clients is unsatisfactory
  • limits to the time that can be spent with individual clients
  • changing business directions (getting out of or into specific services)

In workplaces where leaders are working hard to be collaborative, respectful and responsive to needs, they can sometimes fall into what I call the “Empathic Abyss” where there is an expectation of an endless supply of time to listen to complaints that are directed at a situation they didn’t create.

The emotions it evokes are usually from the anger family – from annoyance to resignation (not again!) to seething resentment and outrage. And if that doesn’t describe your emotions, they may describe those of your employees.

There are often some fear emotions that are evoked as well. Trepidation, feeling of threat to future funding, anxiety over how to plan and implement this new requirement.

With me so far?   Any you want to add?

At this point, most conscientious managers have rolled up their sleeves, mustered whatever arguments they can to “sell” this new requirement, and prepare themselves to wade onto the communication battlefield, wearing the cloak of “I hear you but do it anyway”.

This is exhausting, and at the end of the day, the manager is sometimes left with some residual shame (“I hate asking people to ignore their objections”) and some seething resentment of their own about the new requirements.   Concurrently, you may be aware that the underlying rationale for these requirements is greater accountability, and as a principle, you don’t disagree with accountability. You just wish there was something better than just adding more “counting” and reporting.   Or that something would come off the To Do List.

Add to this, the knowledge that this issue isn’t going to go away, and it’s a pretty sure bet that the employees will want to bring it up again. And again. And again, as a sore point in their daily management of priorities.

The Empathic Abyss contains the belief that a good leader must listen to people’s complaints, even when there is a limited scope for making substantive changes.   The challenge implicit in this belief and behaviour is that the act of listening, often leads to an implicit expectation on the part of the complainers that something will be done. To listen and not to act, can therefore erode your relationship with people over the long term.   To listen over and over again, can lead to a host of frustrations that don’t have an outlet. In time, your willingness to listen may reduce also.

None of these are outcomes that contribute to healthy, resilient and powerful staff teams.

Here is a 5 point plan you can implement when you’re on the cusp of implementing an unpopular and unwelcome, externally-driven change.

1) Be clear about what your purpose is for listening.

We know that there is rich information in complaints (see also Appreciative Listening).   So, instead of listening, and feeling it’s your job to defend or sell the change, start with listening to hear what is behind the complaints.

Consider communicating your purpose by saying: I’m listening because right now because I don’t yet know the best way to implement this required external change. My hope is, that by understanding all aspects of this change and it’s anticipated effects, it will help us to be more creative and conscious about the choices we have in the implementation of this change.

 Then ask the question: When you anticipate this change being implemented, what concerns does it raise for you? (You can ask, if you want to, what hopes or benefits do you see?   However, depending on the nature of the change, this might be a better question to ask at the end of the conversation.)

Your task then is to capture what you hear people say in order not to miss anything. Do so visibly in a notepad in front of you. Or, on a white board. Or, on a projected screen. Or, ask someone to help the group keep track so that you can in fact, stay focused on the speaker.

2) Find the underlying value or quality that is implicit in the complaint.  

 Ask the group to help you identify what value or quality underlies each complaint, until people feel that they’re repeating themselves and there is nothing new to be learned.

An example of a complaint that you will have written down may be:

“I should be spending more time helping clients rather than collecting statistics”

 Take this example and ask: What is the underlying values and work qualities of this concern?

 In response, staff may say:

  • I took this job because I loved working with people, not data
  • It worries me that I may have to turn away people who need me because I have to get the monthly statistics report done
  • I’m worried that you’ll expect me to work overtime, or that I will expect me to work overtime to do this thing.
  • It angers me that things never seem to come off my plate, they only get added, and it’s the clients who suffer
  • I don’t have any faith in the statistics – they don’t tell the real story of what I deal with
  • I feel angry about having to constantly justify my decisions and to be monitored in this way.

3) Next step: Take these values and qualities and ask for help putting them into the major themes related to this change.

This is a crucial step. It leads to creating categories to hold the concerns of the staff, and allows everyone to see more clearly, what’s at stake for them and what they want to protect as much as possible.

Examples of themes from the above statements, might include:

  • Minimizing impact on Client Services
  • Expanding Job Satisfaction
  • Managing Workloads Effectively
  • Telling the Whole Story

In essence what has been captured can easily translate into the critical criteria that people want to see become embedded into the implementation of the change.

Continue to do this, until you have all the criteria that are important to people in regards to the management of this change.

If you end up with a large number of themes, ask people for help in prioritizing them so you know what’s truly most important and what people feel is at stake in the implementation.

4) At this point in the conversation, as the leader, it gives you an opportunity acknowledge all the values and qualities that are important to people.   You can agree with them about what is important (yes, I want you to have expanding job satisfaction, yes, I want us to be able to manage workloads effectively, etc.). You can, if you wish, share with the group which items on their list are your concerns or desires for your job too.    What you are affirming here are people’s values, and not their complaints or disagreement with the change, but what needs to be protected and preserved.   This doesn’t mean that you yet have all the answers.   This method is designed for externally driven changes, remember, but you are committing yourself to working with staff to maximize these values as much as the possible.

5) Ask the question: What are the possible ways we could manage the implementation of this change so that, as much as is possible, we integrate what is important to you?

This part of the conversation may take place in one meeting or over several meetings, depending on the complexity of what needs to be implemented.

It is particularly useful at this point, if you aren’t already, to switch the language from “problem” to “puzzle”.   You’re inviting people into the more empowered state of seeing this as a puzzle of how to put all the values into play with this particular change.   This can be both short term and long term focused discussion.

Encourage brainstorming. Ask specific questions like, how can we implement this new directive AND manage workloads effectively?  How can we implement this new directive, AND sustain high quality service to clients?

The best brainstorming ideas, of course, will address several of the criteria – i.e. they will protect time with clients, they will help with the balancing of workloads, etc.

So, imagine someone has suggested that maybe the office open 15 minutes later, and close 15 minutes earlier. This would help find 30 minutes a day for administrative duties. It’s not ideal, but people are brainstorming a client hotline for those fast questions that people have, and maybe, each staff person will be assigned one day in 10 to sit on the hotline, and then… suddenly, where there were only problems, people see it as a puzzle. How do we protect or act on our values and still implement this new system?

It’s important to even allow the “not too practical” ideas, because they act as sparks.

When there are lots of ideas, find the ideas that can be put together in such a way that it leads to the optimum preservation of what is important to people.

Helpful Tips:

  • Treating it like a puzzle, not a problem, is good for lowering stress levels. When stress is lower, creativity is higher.
  • There may need to be some evidence collected to help with this task. For example, knowing how much time it takes to input a report may be very helpful evidence when discussing workload questions.
  • There may need to be some parameters put on the conversation, but the fewer things off limits, the more that even the off limits ideas may provoke creativity
  • You don’t have to take on the task of convincing people to like or approve of this change ever – you do need to take seriously getting input on the best possible ways to do so
  • It’s important to gage how much people can shift during the meeting. If the change is particularly upsetting to people, then slowing down the process, making sure lots of listening happens up front, and is really heard, BEFORE solutions are defined, is very important.
  • The risk of engaging in this conversation is that some people may decide that it compromises too many of their values to stay. This is a possible consequence but one that is better faced honestly and squarely, than running as a sound track of constant and draining complaining.
  • The benefit of having this conversation is that for the people who stay, they will have a larger sense of integrity by finding the solutions with the least negative consequences.

As for you and your Complaint Abyss?

At the next organizational meeting, after implementation, make sure you ask for all the ways in which things are better than expected. I bet you’ll be able to collect a lot of evidence for that.

After all, you’re an empathic leader! You’ve used your empathic listening skills, to turn something that could have become a source for ongoing bitterness and complaining, into an occasion of deep listening and solution seeking, based on what matters to people.

It’s a good day’s work.