Be The CEO Who Listens To His People

Even the best managers run into conflict with their employees. Here's how to handle complaints with ease.
Co-founder, KISSmetrics
August 30, 2011

No matter how great a boss you are, you are going to have some dissatisfaction from employees in how you’re running the company and how you’re treating them. Some employees will want more job perks, and some will have unrealistic thoughts about how a job should be done. The younger employees, in particular, will be inexperienced in business and not understand the realities of your industry.

Here are some ways to handle complaints from employees.

1.  Set up a venting process

There’s no doubt that resentful employees are unproductive employees.  Some of your workers will always be resentful over something, but if there isn’t a place to vent their frustrations, they will likely infect other employees with their negativity.

The best solution to this is to put a system in place where they can air their grievances. A suggestion box is the most basic way, but many employees don’t trust that their suggestions are being read if nothing happens in a short period of time. It’s much better to set up systems where there is real verbal communication going on.

Interestingly enough, informal processes often work better. If you’re the CEO, you can encourage employees to come into your office and talk. Having an open door policy undercuts potential for disgruntled staff because they know they’ve been given the opportunity to speak out.

Of course, you might be very busy and your company may be too large for you to realistically handle every subordinate who wants to talk. In this case, instruct your managers and supervisors to have their own open door policy—which is effective for many reasons. The extra communication alone between employees and their immediate supervisors is enough of a benefit to encourage this type of policy.

Just make sure that if you delegate the “open door” system, you give your managers and supervisors the chance to talk to you about their own struggles and grumbles. Otherwise, your supervisors may answer their subordinates with “Yeah, it’s the CEO’s fault. He won’t change anything.” Too often, entry-level employees and supervisors bond over dissatisfaction with upper-level management.

2.  Actually listen

This is one of the easiest and hardest things you can do for your business: being a good listener when an employee has a complaint. It’s the easiest because it requires little time and zero physical effort. It’s the hardest because it requires empathy, patience and a controlled ego.

Suppose you run a car dealership and you have a new salesman coming into the office with an issue. He is complaining that the base salary is too low, and that it’s unfair to have such a commission-dominant structure. He thinks that commission should just be a nice bonus and that salespeople should be paid a full salary unconditionally.

Now, you know that implementing his suggestion would be terrible for business. Motivation would plummet, costs would rise, and layoffs would be imminent. In fact, you would probably know where this conversation is going after the first sentence and want to pipe in.

Don’t.

Instead, listen to his entire spiel. Give him 10 minutes of just him talking, if you have to. Chances are he won’t make it past three and a half minutes before finishing. As he speaks, nod and take in all he’s saying. Let go of any other distractions in your day, and do not think about your other business operations. As the employee is talking, he is the only person or topic on your radar.

After he has spoken, let him know you appreciate his concerns and him coming to you with these thoughts. From there, you can explain the situation and let him know your answer, if you have one right away.  When he leaves your office, he may not have achieved his goal, but at least he will know that he has been heard.

One special characteristic of Japanese body language is that they can nod in a way that lets someone know that the message is received and understood, even if it’s not agreed upon.  You need to be able to convey this on your own, both verbally and nonverbally. If your employee can understand that you disagree but care about his experience, he will be much more willing to go along with your plan and be open to the possibility that you were right all along.

3.  At least consider that they may be right

You may find this hard to believe, but sometimes the lowest paid employee in your company may have an idea that can take your industry by storm. There are countless stories of entry-level employees who have impacted large product creations and advertising campaigns.  Google is actually known for encouraging and implementing this type of feedback from all of their employees.

When you hear an idea that may have some potential, share it with some of your managers and maybe some other entrepreneurs you know. Remember that most great businessmen started on the bottom somewhere and that ambitious employee might be the next superstar.  Also, be wary of denying requests based on arbitrary notions like “This is just the way it’s always been done,” or “This would go against the company culture.” Not only is arbitrariness in decisions irritating to all who work with you, but it’s counterproductive to building a powerful business as well.

I’ve worked with a number of CEO’s and I can tell you the ones that are most beloved by their teams are the ones who encourage the most open communication and who are generally the most approachable. The ones who discourage open communication are the ones who get the reputations of “trying to squeeze us out of every cent possible.”  Remember also that when you implement a change, it’s important to give the employee credit who came up with the idea. This makes him or her motivated to work harder, and lets the rest of the staff know that you are a CEO who listens to his people.