How to Handle Complaints From Lower Levels

By: Dr. Thomas Gordon

A common problem for all leaders is what to do when a member of one of your team’s group comes to you with a complaint arising from some unmet need. Typically, when a person makes such an appeal to her boss’s boss, it is called “going over your boss’s head.” This is almost universally condemned as reprehensible. Discussions about this problem in our L.E.T. classes always produce the strongest of feelings from participants:

“That’s insubordination!”

“It should be strongly discouraged.”

“Going over your boss’s head is asking for  trouble.”

“I’d fire anyone who went over my head.”

complaints leadership training skills active listeningObviously, leaders have a lot of fear and anxiety about this situation. Yet it does happen, sometimes frequently. Usually being afraid of a situation means that you don’t know how to handle it effectively. This is true of most leaders, and the reason is not hard to find: they see “going over the boss’s head” in win-lose terms. When a person comes to a leader, bypassing her own boss (the leader’s group member), that leader feels caught in a dilemma—whose side shall she take, who is going to win? No leader wants a disgruntled or unhappy employee; neither does she want to alienate a group member (the employee’s boss).

The most common way out is to decide in favor of the employee’s supervisor, according to the familiar (but misguided) principle of “A leader should always back up her people in conflicts with their employees,” or “Don’t ever undermine the authority of one of your group members.”

A much more satisfactory way is readily available to leaders, if they would only shift into the no-lose way of thinking about conflicts. Here is how the No-Lose Method would work in such a situation:

As represented by E (an employee) has bypassed S (her supervisor) and come to L (the leader) with a complaint. Here are the steps L can follow:

1. L must listen empathically and understandingly, not, however, to discover what the problem is, but to demonstrate her acceptance (not agreement) of E’s feelings and perhaps help E find her own solution.

2. If E finds a solution that meets her needs, the problem is solved.

3. If E does not, L asks E to consider going directly to S with the complaint, instructing E to send only I-Messages to S.

4. If E is willing to go directly to S, L is now out of the problem.

5. If E is reluctant to go directly to S, L offers E the alternative of calling S to come join them to work out a solution acceptable to both E and S (Method III).

6. If E rejects this alternative, L explains her unwillingness to make any decisions in the absence of S.

7. If E accepts having S join them, L asks S to come in, explaining briefly that L has learned of a problem that involves S and E and would like to help, but both must be present.

8. L then acts only as a neutral facilitator of problem-solving between S and E, staying completely out of the specific content of the problem, yet Active Listening and helping S and E work through the six steps of the problem-solving process and reach some solution mutually acceptable to both S and E.

While this procedure may look rather detailed or mechanical, every step has a purpose. The leader first wants to show acceptance and understanding of the employee so that in the future she won’t be discouraged from trying to get her needs met. The leader must communicate that the employee owns the problem, yet be willing to help her find a solution on her own, if possible. The leader also must communicate that she is unable to help without both parties present. Finally, the leader must not get drawn into problem-solving.

This procedure produces some tangible and long-range benefits to all parties:

1. The employee learns that the leader will not referee conflicts between her and her supervisor.

2. The employee learns it is expected that she first try to resolve conflicts with her supervisor by going directly to her.

3. The supervisor learns that the leader will not interfere in conflicts with her employees by making unilateral decisions in her absence. Equally important, the leader will not brush off an employee complaint by automatically “backing up the supervisor.”

4. Both employee and supervisor learn that the leader values conflicts getting resolved by mutual problem-solving rather than by some universal rule that a supervisor is always right because she’s the boss (or the opposite: an employee’s needs must be met at any cost).

5. The supervisor learns from this that it would also be acceptable for her to go over the leader’s head should she have an unresolved conflict with the leader.


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