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Monica Wofford, CSP, teaches leaders to understand and improve their own leadership in using practice, skills, and desire as their three areas of focus.

Are you leading with a complaint, comment or question? Only one will get the results you’re looking for.

As someone who has recently written a book called Make Difficult People Disappear and is designing conference curriculum for the same issue, I’ve spent a lot of time recently focusing on complaints and how difficult people have a LOT of them. But, if you’re the leader in your organization and you are complaining regularly about those you lead, these efforts may not change the behavior and even worse, they may land you in the Human Resource office.

An article was forwarded to me recently by one of our team members and its headline was: Do you Lead with a Complaint, Comment or Question? It struck me as poignant because when a leader coaches or disciplines, it usually works best to begin with a question. Coaching is a two way dialogue and discipline needs to begin that way, as well.

Why Complaints Don’t Work

Beginning a conversation with a complaint puts an employee or team member on the defensive and leads the conversation in an entirely different direction than the behavior you may have meant to discuss. Complaints are negative and much like starting with “we need to talk about your attitude” will create a response you may not have been prepared for, such as “what attitude, let’s talk about YOUR attitude”, a negative complaint as an opening line sets the same tone and sabotages your success. That sabotage can then lead to a need for the employee to fire a complaint back at you. Enter Human Resources.

Why Comments Don’t Work

If you simply make a comment, under your breath or just loud enough to be audible, it may be perceived as a non-directive opinion. It may also be so subtle that the employee doesn’t get it. Or they may merely hear your comment, take it personally, and use it as a reason to erode their self-esteem which then slows down their productivity. That of course applies to a negative comment. The same can be true for a positive comment. It can be so subtle that you leave the employee wondering if you meant it, what you meant by it, if it was positive or if you value them really, hence why you said it softly or indirectly. Undervalued employees will usually find a way to tell you that and it’s usually just an indirectly, but more damaging, than your comment was delivered.

Why Questions are Good

With the simple preface of saying “watch your tone of voice here”, questions are good because they engage the employee in conversation. If you say, “I noticed you took this action with that customer. Can you tell me more about your reasoning on that decision?”, you’re now in a conversation that with more discussion, can be productive and revealing. It will bring you closer to the issue you were likely trying to bring up or modify or stop, in the first place. It also gets you closer to finding out what motivated their actions, how they think, and what is their side of the story. The more you know as a leader, the less inaccurate assumptions you’ll act on, the more employees will trust you and the more information you will then have to lead those team members more effectively.

I should be even more clear, there is great value in the Human Resource professional in your office and being encouraged to visit them is not always a bad thing. However, in many organizations, HR is seen somewhat like the principal’s office. They are the parties that handle employee and leader disputes, but they are also the ones who can help guide you on what questions to ask, how to ask them, and how to handle delicate situations. Work with them as a resource and don’t put yourself in a spot where you’re defending your actions with HR acting as a mediator. Contagious Leaders are proactive AND they ask questions before taking action…unless of course, the building is on fire, but that’s another post entirely!

Have a great Monday, an even better week and of course, stay contagious!


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