How to handle complaints

If you lead in any capacity, you've probably found yourself in a situation like this. It's the start of your workday, and you’re getting settled into your office. You open up your computer to get going on what needs to get done that day, and fifteen minutes in (or it's already waiting for you right when you sit down) an email comes through with some measure of complaint or critique. If you're a pastor, it might be something from your sermon the weekend prior. If you're a worship leader, it might be about your song choice from Sunday. If you're a school teacher, it might be a parent complaining about a recent interaction with their child. If you're a business owner, it might be a customer who's dissatisfied with their service.

Dealing with complaints and critics is part of being in leadership. It's not a matter of if a complaint or criticism will come your way, it's a matter of when.

It's easy to be self-righteous and dismissive when we’re on the receiving end of complaints and criticism. It's easy to think,

          "They don't understand what they’re talking about."
          "I'm the expert here; they should leave this stuff to me."
          "If they only knew the amount of work that went into this decision then they wouldn't                 be saying what they are saying."

We often view complaints and criticism as threats, but I believe they should be viewed as opportunities. Opportunities to build stronger relationships with the complainer or critic, to build trust, to learn and grow.

Our response to complaints and criticism are defining moments in our leadership. How we engage with the individual who is offering the complaint or critique indicates the type of leader we are and are becoming.

The question is, will we respond with grace and humility, or in defensiveness and pride? I'm going to assume that if you are reading this, you desire to be a leader marked by grace and humility. If that's true, consider the following as a simple process to follow when responding to complaints or criticism.

1. Don't respond right away. In our technology-driven world, it's all too easy to quickly fire back with an email, text message, or tweet. Rather than responding right away, set the message aside. When I receive a complaint, I have a 24-hour rule. By waiting a full 24-hours, it gives me space to do the following.

2. Consider what they're saying. As I alluded to above, it's easy to think that just because you're the leader, you're always right. That's not true in the least. By stepping back and not responding right away, it gives you time to honestly assess whether or not what they are saying is true and accurate. It could be that their complaint or critique is off base because they don't have the full story. Or they could be dead right, and your decision or actions as the leader fell short. Either way, by considering what they are saying you are building trust with them without them even realizing it.

3. Decide if a response is necessary. Not every complaint requires a response. There are those who complain just for the sake of complaining. There are also those who want to give you feedback, some do it more graciously than others, but aren't looking to dig deeper into the issue. They simply feel it's important to let you know how they are feeling.

If you decide that a full response isn't needed, acknowledging that you received their feedback and thanking them for their concern are important.

4. Respond with respect and listen. Often when people give complaints and criticism, they simply want to be heard. Sometimes when a decision has been made, there's no going back and changing that decision. What's done is done. But people want to know that their voice is valued. Hearing them out, validating their concerns, and dialoguing with them could lead to unexpected outcomes. Again, they might be right and have something to offer moving forward and you could gain a team member or ally. Or at the very least their trust in you will grow because of the way you treated them through the process.

5. Ask for a meeting in person. Communicating through email and text message leaves too much room for misinterpretation. Your conversation will be much more effective if done in person. If that isn't possible, a phone conversation is the next best thing. Communication through email is a last resort.

Handling complaints and criticism is always hard and never fun. But if approached in the right way, with enough humility and grace, it has the potential to be a defining moment that could change the trajectory of your leadership for years to come.