Overcoming Reactive Behaviors When Responding to Employee Concerns

by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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In a previous article, Are You Listening? Three Common Listening Errors and How to Correct Them, I addressed three such errors and offered suggestions for responding differently if leaders want to demonstrate true commitment to listening to and addressing employee concerns. In this article, I offer four more common behaviors and suggestions for responding differently. The central theme in these examples is the tendency to react too quickly and often negatively when confronted by employee concerns.

Dismissing the Validity of Employees' Concerns
Example: The employee shares concerns about recent organizational changes and how she feels her duties are shrinking. She has witnessed similar situations in other departments which have resulted in downwardly classifying the positions of the employees involved. "It appears to be a trend," she says. The supervisor responds, "That's ridiculous. There is simply no basis for you to worry about that. It's silly for you to waste your time thinking that way."

The Problem: Even if the employee has no legitimate basis for thinking and feeling as she does, she has expressed a heartfelt concern. She may have legitimate reasons for her concern, which you shouldn't dismiss out of hand. For example, perhaps she has talked with colleagues in other departments who have in fact experienced the classification downgrade to which she refers.

What to Do Instead: Acknowledge the employee's concerns and express appropriate empathy. For instance, the supervisor might affirm that such feelings are only natural during times of significant organizational change. Then, inquire as to the basis of her concerns, such as asking her to elaborate on what she understands about the situation. Finally, to the extent you know and are at liberty to share, either alleviate or validate her concerns, and offer support:

Alleviate and support: "I've heard nothing to suggest that is happening, so let's discuss how to make your work more meaningful for you."

Validate and support: "It does appear things are moving that way, but let's talk about how we can avoid that outcome for you."

Jumping to Conclusions Without Attempting to Understand Employees' Purpose in Communicating
Example: An employee describes some breakdowns in communication about a project that has occurred between him and colleagues from another team. Matters have gone from bad to worse in the past two weeks. The supervisor reacts, "So, you've known about this for a while and haven't told me? And now you want me to jump in to fix things?!" The employee's intent had been to own the problem, create awareness with his supervisor, and ask for advice so that he could "fix things."

The Problem: Leaders sometimes jump in too early to respond before fully hearing employees' concerns. In this example, the supervisor's own insecurity seeps through, causing her to lash out inappropriately. Leaders in other circumstances may genuinely want to step in and help "fix things." Whatever the motive, it disempowers employees to try to finish their thoughts for them and make unfounded guesses.

What to Do Instead: Slow down and be patient. Let employees come to a natural close and state their purpose. Then respond. If you can't honor the request, state why and offer other solutions. If the employee rambles and isn't clear in his purpose, provide acknowledgement and understanding and ask "How can I help?"

Arguing About Minutia
Example: The employee meets with his supervisor to discuss an on-going challenge they have both experienced in working with another team. He recalls the facts of a particular meeting they recently attended which are tangential to his underlying concern about one of the members of the other team who is difficult to work with. Before he can get this far, however, his supervisor states, "I don't think it quite happened that way. What happened was ..." and proceeds to argue about the finer points of the meeting.

The Problem: The supervisor has failed to hone in on the employee's central message. While facts matter, are they pertinent to this message or more tangential? Arguing about minutia can distract employees as they attempt to express deeper concerns about a situation.

What to Do Instead: Determine what facts require correction before being able to proceed with the conversation and what facts are more tangential. If the former, don't argue but engage in respectful conversation to be sure you and the employee are on the same page. If the latter, and subsequent correction about tangential facts is still important, discuss them as a separate concern with no bearing on the central issue.

Impugning Negative Motives
Example: An employee expresses concerns about another colleague on the team who has been abrasive and rude. She states that it has taken her weeks to have the courage to raise this issue and request her supervisor's assistance. "What should I do?" she asks. The supervisor has observed tensions between this employee and her colleague but doesn't consider the colleague to be abrasive. He responds, "You're going to need to keep working with him. If you're suggesting I should reassign him - or you - that's not going to happen. And I'm certainly not going to fire him."

The Problem: The supervisor has imputed a deeper and negative motive than is suggested by anything the employee has said or done. She has asked for help in working with a challenging colleague, not for the supervisor to take any action on his own, much less to reassign or fire the colleague.

What to Do Instead: You can't read your employee's mind. Even if you suspect a deeper motive, don't risk guessing. Stay focused on what employees are truly saying and requesting and honor their message as delivered. Help them work through their challenges and fears and identify strategies to address them.

These examples highlight various ways leaders can become reactive when confronted by employee concerns. The common antidote is to remain calm, focused, and patient, ensuring you've fully listened and understood before offering responses that are more reasoned and relevant to employees' concerns.