I lift my eyes from the computer screen to see our programmer Jim standing at the door. He closes the door and says: “Hey, I need to talk to you about something”. My heart fills with dread – here it goes again….
This has been the third time he came in to complain. He doesn’t like to use JIRA, you see. He likes to use Hansoft because that’s what he used at his last job. He really wants me to switch to Hansoft. He wants me to switch the entire studio to Hansoft. The studio that has been running on JIRA for years.
After he leaves, more complainers take his place. An artist who wants the lights off in the shared office, an Assistant Producer who thinks our feature delivery process is flawed, and so on, and so on…
Naively I was proud for a while that the team trusted me enough to come to me with their problems. In fact, I encouraged it. I thought I was creating an open atmosphere where people were free to express their frustrations without the fear of reprimand.
What I didn’t realize is that I was breeding an atmosphere of dependence. What was wrong?
- The team became dependent on the manager to fix their problems. They came to expect it. They got lazy in thinking through the solutions themselves.
- It built a sense of entitlement. By listening to them and attempting to solve their problems I made them feel validated in their negative thinking and feel entitled to a fix.
- It did a disservice to their career development by building bad habits. No boss ever likes to hear about the problems without also hearing about a proposed solution.
- It made the team feel things are worse than they are. Rather than focusing on solutions, they focused on problems.
- It discouraged team spirit. People get suspicious when they see their teammates talking to the manager behind closed doors.
- It took a heavy toll on me. Listen to this complaining daily and you’ll start believing your team and your job sucks and everything is wrong. And since you can’t fix everything for everyone, you feel helpless at times. Hello, depression!
Once I realized what’s going on, I changed my approach.
I now have zero tolerance for “empty” complaining. Instead, I promote the following.
- Understand the problem, its context, scope and history before bringing a problem to the manager. How many people is it a problem for? How did the problem come about? Were there attempts to solve it before? Why things work the way they work?
- Have a proposed solution.
- Think your proposed solution through. Are there any edge cases? Limitations (budget, time etc)? How does it affect the rest of the team? What’s the cost (time, effort, money) of implementing it?
- Discuss the problem and the proposed solution with the team. Hear their ideas, have them beat on your solution and refine it until it “works” for everyone.
- Own the solution. There is a saying “initiative is punishable” 🙂 See the solution through, and enlist the manager to help facilitate it.
This approach has produced tremendous results so far. People on the team became more self-reliant and shown more initiative in finding and addressing problems. It brought the team closer as they solved problems together. It changed the outlook on their projects, job and teammates from negative to positive as they started focusing on solutions instead of problems. It built their confidence as they realized they had the power to change things. And finally, it helped restore my sanity as I no longer had to listen to “empty” complaints.
So my advice: discourage bitching and focus on solutions instead.