How to Complain to Your Boss So Your Complaints Are Heard

How to complain to your bossIf you clicked on this post because of the title, you may be disappointed or angry, or perhaps a little of both. The reason: the truth is you shouldn’t complain to your boss. That’s not to say you can’t raise legitimate concerns up the chain of command, just make sure you understand the rules to complaining at work. That’s right, there is a set of simple rules to complaining at work that are intuitively obvious but often forgotten.

It goes without saying that I am talking about typical workplace complaints, not more serious issues that may require escalation. Those should go through proper channels depending on your institution.

You see, when I say complain, I mean a statement that something is annoying, unsatisfactory, or perhaps even unacceptable. By definition, a complaint is not action-based, it is more cathartic by nature. So, back to why you shouldn’t complain to your boss. The fact is if you complain to your boss you will be perceived as a malcontent or even worse emblematic of a larger problem. You might hear “if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” or some similar management cliché. Your boss wants to hear about solutions, not problems. If you decide a concern is worth communicating upwards, think about potential solutions you might suggest. In this manner your concern is given more weight rather than being dismissed as garden variety belly-aching. The fact that you have taken the time to think through potential solutions projects how important the concern is to you.

Likewise, if you are in a management position, it is equally important to understand the rule of complaining at work. Most importantly, never complain to subordinates. The reason – by complaining without an action plan for resolution you are communicating that you are frustrated but un-empowered. How do you think that makes them feel? Few things are less confidence inspiring than hearing management complain.

So, where is a person to go for a good old fashioned, soul cleansing, gripe session? It’s simple – that’s what peers are for. Complaining to peers is a safe zone, a place where you can get needed catharsis with little risk of negative repercussions. In fact, it is a good thing. Complaining amongst peers creates a sense of a shared experience and helps build bonds. Think about the experience of military boot camp or pre-season sports camps. They look to intentionally build bonds by creating a shared, miserable experience. Hopefully that is not the case at your work place, but the fact remains………..misery does love company.

In conclusion, remember these simple rules to complaining at work:

  1. Don’t complain to your boss. If you have a concern, be prepared to suggest potential solutions.
  2. Don’t complain to subordinates. They don’t want to hear it, and it makes you look un-empowered.
  3. Peers are the sweet spot for complaining. If you need to vent, this is your ticket!

For information on managing and leading change at your institution, get a copy of our eBook: Leading Institutional Change.

Change eBook CTA

Craig Lockwood, President, TMS

Looking for more? Check out our library of resources.

Get Started