I'm pleased to share with you a powerful way of understanding how our reactions to broken promises and unfulfilled commitments can create very positive – or very negative – impacts within organizations and relationships.
The new distinction here is Responsible Complaint, not to be confused with complaining or gossiping or whining. Just as I can never take the action of changing a spark plus and bringing about the result of a better-running car... unless I can see a spark plug to begin with when I open the hood! The first step is to acquire the new distinction "spark plug" - then and only then can I take these new actions.
The same is true for us here. The first step in being able to take the action of making a Responsible Complaint - and not complaining or whining - is to acquire the distinction "responsible complaint" in the first place!
Virtually all of us have been in situations in which promises were not kept, upon which some type of gossiping or whining or open-ended complaining ensued. This has a predictably negative impact on organizations as well as relationship. It is in these situations where Responsible Complaints can actually strengthen relationships, productivity, accountability and the workplace culture.
Responsible Complaints (vs. Complaining)
Organizations, at their most basic level, can be understood as human beings who are coordinating action with each other. All organizations may be understood as networks of conversations, networks of inter-connected commitments. Said slightly differently, every organization can be understood as human beings making, keeping and managing promises (agreements, commitments) with each other - at a multitude of different levels and in a multitude of different ways. You can do this well, or you can do this poorly. But you can't not do this.
The goal here is impeccable coordination of action. In moving toward a “culture of commitment”or a "culture of accountability" in our organizations, it may not be possible to keep 100% of the promises we make. What is important and what is possible, however, is that all of us actively manage 100% of our commitments.
These commitments are inter-connected with many others, so breakdowns and "drops of the ball" in one area often have big impacts on Results.
Leaders convene conversations that matter. A Responsible Complaint is a powerful language move available to us when someone else does not deliver what was promised.
What options do we have at our disposal with others do not keep commitments? They include:
- Doing nothing (and usually simmering in silent resentment)
- gossiping and complaining to others (thereby contributing to a poor culture)
- blowing up in a fit of public anger (and often damaging relationships and public identity)
These approaches do not usually work. Instead, these usually lead to resentment, relationship problems and ultimately, the non-fulfillment of the commitment.
To the contrary, Responsible Complaints are powerful tools for managing commitments and building strong relationships. Key steps in making a responsible complaint are:
- Introduce Responsible Complaints, talk about them, and give explicit permission to use them in situations where someone doesn't keep or manage a commitment.
- As you're beginning the conversation with the other person, set the context by reminding each other of your previous conversation in which you agreed to start using Responsible Complaints as a tool for improving accountability and for keeping relationships "clean."
- Check your mood. View this as a type of learning. Breathe.
- Start with the facts, make some assertions: Did we – or did we not – have an agreement in place in which you committed to do X by Y? It's possible you thought the other person made a commitment, and the other person thought you just talked about something. If this is the case, discuss how you can prevent this situation from recurring.
- Continue with the facts: Is it – or is it not – complete? It's possible the promise was actually fulfilled, and you simply aren't aware of it. If this is the case, discuss how you and the other person can communicate more clearly in the future
- If indeed a promise was made and not fulfilled or managed, share your assessments: Failure to manage this commitment caused these problems…had this negative impact…
- Make additional effective requests – which lead to new commitments and a new timeframe.
- Or revoke the initial commitment.
- Finally, as you're moving toward the end of the conversation: Discuss whether this situation (misunderstandings or unmanaged / broken commitments) is an event or a trend? How can we keep this from happening again? Any new steps to take here?
I invite you consider this "culture question" for your own organization: What has become the “standard” or norm when people in your organization fail to keep or manage commitments? When the norm has become people making Responsible Complaints, you know you're on your way to a healthy culture of accountability. How we react in these situations has a big impact on productivity, relationships overall workplace culture.
Remember: We teach people how to treat us and we get what we tolerate!