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You need complainers on your team

A cartoon of a man with a megaphone shouting at another man

An employee that never fusses about anything could be a very expensive hire. Example: a small business had an employee out of the office for several weeks. But instead of hiring a temp employee, they decided to have his coworkers cover his workload. It turned out to be an eye-opening experience.


First, the other employees learned about what this person does each week. Not the end-result, but the steps to get to the end result. Then they learned another much more important fact: this employee was the worst complainer in the entire company. Is that a good or bad thing?

Turns out that the non-complainer was fine with taking extra steps in a number of their daily procedures. What one person might do in 3 steps, this person was taught to do in 10 steps and was fine with that. The coworkers were mystified: how could this person be ok with such a convoluted process? Why didn’t they complain more? Did they really think it needed to be so complex?

The reasons people don’t complain aren’t really important. Sometimes it’s how they’re raised, or maybe they’re afraid of appearing insubordinate, or they have had past experience with their advice going unheeded.

If you can shave steps off of any process in your company and it results in improved speed, efficiency, profitability, it’s hard to imagine a company not being better off. So how to manage complaining employees? And how to cultivate the benefits of complaints from non-fussy employee? And what about new employees who don’t know the systems well enough to complain?


1) realize they are an asset – if they are complaining, it likely means they care. Either they care to work in a more streamlined way, or want things to be better. (They could just be a sour person, too)

Over time, systems can become cumbersome, and build up extra steps that are no longer needed. Maybe they had a purpose before, but it never stuck, or the importance of compliance faded.

2) don’t let them stop at the complaint. Tell them you need to know how to make it better. What needs to change? What about the exceptions that might be impacted if they stop doing a certain step?

3) ask them to author the new procedure. Tell them that you may need them to revise it if it’s not intuitive or simple enough for the coworkers. Sometimes these complaints are as simple as “how about we just stop doing this” and the implementation is fast and easy.


1) Observe them. Ask “do you ever use this button on this application?” Or ask “what does this button do? If the answer is I don’t know, or we never use that, that you have a problem. You have wasted steps in your system. Say “what if you didn’t have to see that button, would that help?” – if the answer is “SURE” then get rid of it.

Warning sign: any answer that starts with “I was told to…” or “This is how I was trained” – make them question it. Ask them if they know the reasons WHY it’s done. If not, ditch it.

The reason some employees don’t complain is partially because they already know the steps, so they don’t need to revisit the “why” behind a process. They don’t mind ignoring superfluous steps. It’s comfortable. Their lives aren’t materially affected by improvements or streamlining. If anything, some lazy people want to avoid adding items to their plate. Or they were taught the sequence by a predecessor and never asked “why do we even have to do that?”

2) Have the non-complainer train a new employee. Watch silently and muzzle your desire to interject a “that’s crazy, do we really do that?!!?” comment. You’ll hear things like “we don’t use that button, ignore that page, just press return, and ignore the warnings and then click continue” – these are signs that you have scar tissue in your process that needs to be removed.

3) Ask your non-complainer “what do you think if we got rid of that, or removed a few steps?” – if they say “sure” then ask them to try it. Then ask them to document the new, slimmed procedure.


1) Ask your most recently hired employee to train you on a process they just learned. Ask them “why do you need to do that?” on a few steps. If they don’t know, ask them to question its purpose. Your newest hires are often in the BEST position to improve your systems.

2) Have the new hire go back to the trainer and probe them to see if they can simplify the steps together. Expect some push-back.


Cultivate complainers. Guide your fussy staff and channel it into productive change. And coax your non-complainers into speaking up. And your new employees may be the best catalyst for change in their very first few weeks of being on your team. What a great opportunity!

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