The pitfall of complaining to achieve your aims

Angry hipster

Most, if not all of us, have complained to a company at some point. A typical example: the home broadband stops working for a week, the call centre hasn’t been able to resolve the problem, and you write a letter or email of complaint to your telecoms provider. 

The approach works because it escalates the issue to someone whose job it is to fix difficult problems. It doesn’t have any effect on your relationship with the supplier because you’re just an account number. There’s no need for a personal, ongoing relationship, and crafting an eloquent letter of complaint can even be cathartic. 

This approach, however, is almost always a poor choice in a workplace. In one company, Joel (not his real name) would send emails to people in all sorts of teams asking for them to complete tasks for him. If he got no reply within a couple of days, he would send an email of complaint copying senior people. The irony was that Joel himself had a reputation for not replying to other people’s emails and being singularly unhelpful to others. 

Anyway, the people who received a complaint from Joel might sometimes do the task quickly, wanting to escape further embarrassment. Superficially, this would be a victory for Joel. Others would be sufficiently irritated by his emails that they would deliberately ignore him or fob him off in some way. When he joined the firm, Joel told people he wanted to achieve a lot but after two years had only built hostility towards himself. 

The truth about large organisations is that people in them actually have a lot of freedom about what they get involved with. It’s human nature to prioritise the support of colleagues with a high likeability factor. People respond to others who express genuine appreciation for their help, and who treat them as real, autonomous individuals in their own right, deserving respect. 

Sometimes priorities are set by someone’s manager that are not visible to the wider organisation. Complaining to an individual in a different team that they are not doing the requester’s work is not a good way of navigating this prioritisation. 

There are of course some people who are not delivering what they should be. But from experience I know that approaching this by email is singularly unsuccessful, and needs a more subtle approach.