how can I encourage complaints from my employees?

A reader writes:

I’m relatively new to management. I’ve been in my role for about a year and a half. Prior to this, I haven’t had direct reports for over 20 years, and even then it was only for a year. All of my other friends who have been people managers say the worst part of their day is dealing with people who do nothing but complain. That was a fear of mine as well, because I really don’t tolerate incessant, non-productive “observations” all day long very well — at home or at work. But here I am and finding myself complaining about the lack of complaints from my team.

My company and team are pretty lean. Myself included, we are a team of four. Half of my team is fully remote (has always been that way). My team is strong and tenured. They’re high-performing and thoughtfully recognized by company leadership. We’re all trusted and no one questions our output volume or quality. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to help me dip my toes back into management.

Except I have one little concern. One of my directs, Fergus, won’t complain. At all. About anything. Ever. Fergus is a fantastic and reliable employee and I’m thankful to have him. He produces great work and it’s always high quality.

Like every other company on the planet, we do silly, stupid and wasteful things and those things are my pet peeves. My predecessor was too shy and timid to challenge anything or try to change it. I was hired to do the exact opposite of that. I have repeatedly asked my staff, in both team meetings and one-on-ones to complain in a variety of ways — “If you could change any one thing about System X, what would you want?” … “What’s frustrating you about work this week?” … “What can I do to make your day here easier?” … and the more direct, “Please bring me your problems and challenges. I know not everything is perfect, you have to have SOMETHING that frustrates you, I want to help fix it.”

If I had to suggest a root cause for this, I suspect it’s because he has a military background and he’s very much a soldier. Head down. Do as you’re told. Don’t question authority. Fall in line and get the job done. That’s his instinct. How do I coax him out of this while still respecting his personal moral code? How do I approach this so I can feel like I’m getting quality feedback about things that could be scary for him to talk about, like me?

Well, you’re not really looking for “complaints,” per se, and framing it that way might be part of the problem.  You’re looking for input on how to improve work processes, and that’s a different thing.

That said, some people do take a lot of nudging before they’ll offer up that kind of critique, and some never will. Sometimes it’s what was wired into them in past jobs (or even further back, like by their family), sometimes it’s that they don’t trust a manager truly wants to hear their input (no matter what you do to counter that), and sometimes it’s that they genuinely don’t have anything that feels worth raising.

You should still try to draw input out of people, because for some people those efforts will work. But there can be a point where you might have to accept that Fergus just isn’t going to tell you what he thinks could be improved … and there’s a point where continuing to push could cross over from supportive to annoying.

But there are other things you can try. Fergus doesn’t respond the way you want when you frame this as being about complaints or frustrations. What if you framed it more positively? For example: “I’m trying to figure out how to make X function better. Can you help me assess it?” … “Can you help me figure out how to improve Y?” … “What do you think we could do to make Z go more smoothly?” … “I don’t think I’ve nailed the format yet for X — what do you think would work well?”

With those framings, you’re asking for his help and you’re asking him for something that’s obviously work-related — rather than asking for something Fergus-related, which is likely the sticking point.

{ 123 comments… read them below }

  1. CM*

    I think the framing you used in your question would be effective to use with your employees: “Like every other company on the planet, we do silly, stupid and wasteful things and those things are my pet peeves.”

    When you ask “What frustrates you?” it sounds like you’re saying, “I want to be a good manager and make your job more pleasant.” Some people will take you up on this and others won’t.

    But if you say, “My aim is to reduce waste and make sure our processes are efficient and aligned with our goals, and I need your help identifying areas of improvement,” that makes it clear that this is part of their job performance. It would also help if you incentivized them to do this — for example, in group meetings, praise people who identified or implemented a process improvement, and mention it in their performance reviews.

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*


      This is regular exercise in process improvement. You’re not trolling for complaints.

      In fact, looking at it through a paranoid lens, an employee who sees a manager trolling for complaints might think that they are just looking for a way to fire somebody. It’s a really poorly thought-out and executed sting operation, but I could imagine that employees who’ve been bitten before could jump to that conclusion.

      1. pamela voorhees*

        As someone who’s been burned by this, it absolutely happens. “I’m really open to feedback, tell me your complains!” and then get told an hour later “well, you’re just the sort who complains all the time, aren’t you, you negative Nancy?” There’s a big subset of people who want to be the sort of person who deals with complaints head on, but is not actually that person. Alison’s suggestion is excellent — frame it not as “tell me your complaints” but “come to me if you have suggestions on how we can make things better.”

        1. Mongrel*

          We had the “We’re open to all improvement suggestions” then when we suggested improvements were immediately rebutted with “Well, where’s the budget for that going to come from?”.
          It tied in well with the Blue-sky on a budget thing they had going, and that budget was whatever they could find down the back of the sofa on the CEOs yacht

      2. SuperDiva*

        Yes! Process improvement is totally different than complaining. It can be an open, collaborative process that people can engage in as a team. Also, if you give him a problem to solve rather than just a problem to identify, that might feel more comfortable for Fergus. (Like Alison suggested, reframing the question about how to make things better, not saying where things are bad.)

      3. Hummer on the Hill*

        Years ago my employer had an initiative (one of the better ones) where, when we debriefed after a project, we would ask questions like “What could we have improved on” and “what could have been done differently.” The idea was that a project did get finished, but there are always things you learn along the way. Maybe an approach like this would wotk?

      4. TardyTardis*

        Oh, yes, in some offices it’s ‘let a hundred flowers bloom–here’s the Roundup!’. This actually happens in some places, too.

    2. Artemesia*

      And maybe announce this in a staff meeting with an expectation that people will come up with two or three improvement ideas –‘ and don’t worry if you aren’t sure that they would work because most initial ideas don’t go anywhere, but we need to get some things on the table so we can work to improve processes. I will talk to each of you individually in a few days to get your ideas for ways to improve efficiency or quality of our operations and will appreciate your giving thoughts.’

      And then report back about ideas you implemented. If not a one is implementable then think about how to indicate that suggestion X let to development of new process Y or. suggestion A triggered explorations that led to new process B. Nothing discourages participation like a black hole where ideas go in and are never seen again.

      And yes — the focus on improving productivity rather than making them happier is the frame you want. (it is also the frame you want when you ask the boss for something for yourself – new office, better equipment, participation on a team or task force — always frame in terms of how this benefits the company)

      1. Arts Akimbo*

        “And then report back about ideas you implemented.”

        That is so, so important. I was beta testing a web platform once and made a comprehensive list of the bugs I had found and my suggestions for improvement. First, they thanked me (yay!), and second, they implemented almost every single suggestion I gave and fixed all the bugs I had pointed out. It was amazing for my morale! But it would have been better perhaps if they’d reported the changes rather than my stumbling across them, lol.

  2. Mary Richards*

    I also think that specificity helps (kind of what Alison said above). Asking for input and ideas on something specific makes it so much easier to answer than just hoping you’ll get general feedback.

    1. Birdie*

      I think this is a good point. And if they get used to providing feedback that is taken seriously, they might be more likely to start bringing things up without specific prompting.

    2. Ohlaurdy*

      Absolutely. Coming up with an abstract way to make something “better” might be tough for people who aren’t usually idea-driven or frequently creating and they might think the current process works fine because they haven’t considered ways to improve yet. Maybe LW could even start out by suggesting a specific change and asking the team’s opinion as a way to brainstorm other improvements.

  3. Archaeopteryx*

    Adopting more lean/continuous process improvement-based language might help. You’re not looking for complaints, you’re looking for flow interrupters or opportunities for error that could be minimized, etc. Or even phrasing it as wanting to experiment with new workflows rather than committing people to saying what needs to be changed – they may have been burned before and be scared that things will change for the worse.

    1. WegMeck*

      This is almost exactly what I was going to suggest. In many software development methodologies, we have what’s called a “retrospective” on a regular cadence (we have these at the end of each working period of two weeks, as well as at the end of big projects) where we set aside 30-60 minutes as a team to have a structured discussion about what went well, what needs improvement, and what we want to try next working-period or project.

      Some great tactics for getting folks to give truly constructive, actionable feedback (both positive and negative) are:
      1. Make this a regular, integrated part of your process at intervals that make sense for the cadence of your work (monthly; quarterly; on a project-by-project basis, etc) – it can take some “reps” to build up to the team giving you meaningful feedback EVEN IF the groundwork of trust is there already.

      2. Give specific framing “categories” to each kind of feedback. My favorites are “What do we want to keep doing?” “What do we need to do differently?” and “What do we want to stop doing?” – but for more general retrospectives “What went well?” “What do we want to do differently?” and “What do we need to stop or escalate?” can work really well, too. Leading this as part of the software development process, it’s important to be able to differentiate between “what do we want to do differently” and “what do we want to stop altogether” – but that distinction might be less important to you, so two categories might be enough (“What do we want to keep doing?” and “What do we want to do differently?”). The key is that people are MUCH more willing to share specific negative feedback if they can also be very specific about positive feedback (and forcing positive feedback takes the edge off of a barrage of negative feedback as well).

      3. In teams where I’ve had a few members who are hesitant to speak up, I find a few tactics helpful:
      – Send out a form, document, etc that folks can drop their feedback into, in advance of your meeting (so, folks know they get the feedback doc on Thursday, in advance of your bi-weekly retrospective on Friday, etc). This is helpful for folks who just aren’t on-the-spot verbal thinkers and prefer some time to put their thoughts together (also great if you have folks who are just not comfortable speaking up in meetings, in general). In the meeting itself, you can have folks add feedback real-time, discuss feedback, or prioritize addressing that feedback.
      – Take the feedback and go another step, the same way you would if you were leading a brainstorming exercise: have your team work on grouping the feedback on things they want to improve into categories, and then have them each vote on the category they’d like the team to focus on improving (or have you throw your political capital behind, or escalate, etc). This is both helpful as a prioritization and clarification exercise (again, for the same reasons it’s an effective group brainstorming tool) and helps draw out folks who may not feel comfortable voicing specific complaints/areas of opportunity, but who may be more comfortable weighing in on how much something that someone ELSE raises affects them and their work.

      1. Ann Perkins*

        Our organization sometimes does green light, yellow light, red light. Green light = things we’re doing great, we should keep going. Yellow light = be cautious, maybe slow it down or is less of a priority. Red light = we’re going to stop this as it doesn’t add value.

        1. Bingo*

          Personally I’m someone who speaks up in-the-moment (or directly afterwards) if comfortable, but often have trouble remembering those issues when asked. It’s not even that the problems resolve themselves or I get over them, I feel like I just don’t have a section of my brain devoted to “things that need to improve” that I can refer to on the spot for open ended questions like this.

          What was helpful was when one of my previous managers would use the Keep-Stop-Start framework. He asked us to talk about what we wanted the team to keep doing, stop doing, and start doing, and why. It became less “try to remember all the ways you’ve thought we could improve things” and more of a “complete this sentence” kind of prompt. For my coworkers who were more hesitant to complain for fear of “seeming negative”, I also think it helped that it was balanced rather than being a list of “bad things”. Lastly it was good for garnering input from both the more proactive types who liked to come up with new ideas and solutions (they tended to have longer “Start” lists) as well as the more reactive types who might not have a perfect solution, but knew that something felt wrong or right (focusing more on the “Keep” and “Stop”).

          The other thing that helped was that he would give us ample time to prepare and reflect on it, rather than putting us on the spot, so on Wednesday afternoon he’d say “please reflect on the last few weeks / this most recent project and come prepared with some Keep Stop Starts to Friday’s team meeting”. For someone like me, it helped me to have some time to think outside of work (which can be busy with execution) and also gave me the room to be a bit more careful with my wording, so I could be as direct as possible without worrying that I was starting to rant or ramble.

  4. Bree*

    What might also help is explicitly saying that you’re asking for this input from Fergus specifically because you value his skills, work and commitment, so he’s someone you trust to have useful insight and feedback. Make it clear you are asking him to partner with you to find possible improvements and make good work even better. That may reduce any anxiety he has about being seen as too negative or critical.

  5. CH*

    In team meetings, try sharing examples of “complaints” others have brought forward and how it has improved the process or product.
    Ex. “I want to thank Sally for recommending this change to the llama grooming system. She noticed XYZ could have run smoother, and because of her comments, we are grooming 25% faster now.”
    That way, it’s not just hollow words. Fergus can see the impact of his recommendations and how you genuinely appreciate them.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is a really good suggestion – it gives specific example and its positive results and also shows that you will praise for identifying areas for improvement.

    2. Michael Valentine*

      Yup, my thoughts exactly.

      Also, really try to take what Fergus says and turn it into action. It might be the case that he doesn’t recommend anything actionable, but if he does have a good idea, use it! That will encourage him to offer more solutions and recommendations.

  6. Observer*

    I think that Alison is right about the framing.

    But also, stop stereotyping. Plenty of military people can take initiative and can even QUESTION THEIR BOSSES. Of course, once a decision gets made, the also obey orders. But “military” and “never ask a question” are totally NOT synonymous.

    I’m often the person who brings up issues, but I think I would have a really hard time responding well to your requests – it’s way too negative, and I’d always be wondering when it gets too much and backfires spectacularly.

    So, start being more positive. Ask things like “what is the thing you like most about Process X and why?”, “Can you think of any way to improve energy efficiency / turnaround time for teapot design requests / our retention rate / whatever?”, “Engage is some blue sky thinking. What piece of equipment would you buy if budget were no issue?”

    That last one sounds like just fishing without the likelihood of useful information, but that kind of thing can actually be extremely useful. It might tell you a lot about his thought process. Maybe what he wants costs a lot less than he thought, or maybe he assumes that something was just so expensive that no one would ever consider it, so why bring it up. Or he might bring up a suggestion that genuinely cannot be implemented, but it could tell you about something that you COULD fix, or at least make better.

    1. Corporate Goth*

      Yes. I came here to say this but will just echo Observer and Artemesia. Thanks for bringing this up.

      In particular, officers and the NCO (non-commissioned officer) corps are trained to preemptively solve problems, bring up issues, and find a way to make it work. There’s often a period of time to offer suggestions or ask questions before it’s time to “shut up and color,” not blind obedience. It depends on the leader, of course, but the good ones welcome respectful input and build trust with the team for the times when it’s an emergency and there’s no time to talk.

      1. Rev Helga*

        Second and third all of this. I work with military, and typically the best way is to ask about the current situation (aka a sit rep) and then what lessons learned (what you’re calling complaints).

        But also, what you’re seeing as complaints might not even register for this person. There’s a lot of stereotypes about military, and they may not be complaining because they genuinely don’t see anything to complain about versus the stereotype of military won’t speak their mind. (Spoiler alert, married to a senior NCO. He speaks his mind. A lot. )

  7. Daffy Duck*

    Definitely reframe it as helping to improve processes, increase effeciency, anything you can do to support Fergus or the team do their jobs better. Be sure to let them know they do awesome work and how much you appreciate them! So many of us are resistent to complaining because historically complaints = not a team player or you just get told why it won’t work. Trusting a new manager isn’t going to happen overnight, it could take months/years depending on how badly they were burned (or observed someone burned) in the past. It is really important that you go to bat for them with higher management and actually implement those first couple of suggestions.

  8. Double A*

    I am someone who is ALWAYS looking for ways to improve processes, and it is always surprising to me how many people just have no interest in this. They just don’t look at the world this way, and it truly is out of their comfort zone. The other thing is that a lot of people are very comfortable with dysfunctional processes and actually dislike changing them.

    I’m not sure if this is a mindset one can develop, but I do think Allison’s framings would be helpful.

    1. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

      Yes, me too. I have encountered plenty of people who are very resistant to change, even if it ultimately makes things smoother and more efficient. They simply want to keep doing what they have always done – a “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality whereas I approach everything with a “Okay, this is great, but where can we optimize or reduce friction or streamline?” mentality with the ultimate goal to maximize the output with the minimum of input. (I am lazy and want to do as little as possible with the best possible work output.)

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I am the same way – “this is how we’ve always done it” is not a good justification for doing something a difficult, inefficient, or risk-prone way. I also don’t care if people challenge my processes – either I’ve got a good, articulatable reason for doing it that way or I have a chance to make it better. Sometimes, the process is good enough (if it’s not done often or there are other, higher-impact priorities), other times it’s a process I’m not authorized to change without consulting the process owner – but my entire career is essentially built on doing things better, faster, or with less risk.

      One of my teams has a process that seems like the hard way, and, when the supervisor in charge of it explains it to new people, she acknowledges that it may seem overwrought, but it is that way because of X, Y, and Z and identifies the corresponding steps that mitigate/eliminate issues with X, Y, and Z. She’s also open to considering alternatives, if they address the underlying trouble spots appropriately.

      Respectfully, I chucked at your “lazy” comment – I tell people I’m inherently lazy and am not interested in doing extra work I don’t have to, and that’s why I question all the processes. :)

      1. Uranus Wars*

        “lazy” is usually my reason too. “But this way worked for everyone else, why change it?”

        “Because I want to go home and put my feet up and this way allows me to do that!”

        1. TardyTardis*

          I hear you on that. Before the salespeople were dumped into Concur, I dealt with stacks of manual expense reports. I decided to give everyone a standardized reporting form *that had the codes I needed for them specifically on that form*. We ended up giving everyone trainings on how to use that form. Life was waaay easier (well, except for the attorney who used receipts and total per diem for the same day, wanted to smack him around). I didn’t want to work as late as my predecessor had.

      2. Double A*

        It’s funny because it’s like two different ways of being lazy!

        1) This is inefficient and therefore too much work. I need to put a bunch of work in now so I will have less work in the long run so I can be lazy.


        2) Changing this to be more efficient would take a lot of work now. I will just keep putting in a little more work in perpetuity, because I’m too lazy to put in a large amount of work upfront.

        (I don’t really think “lazy” is actually what’s going on in either of these mindsets, to be clear, it’s just a funny way to think about it).

        1. Brownie*

          I keep trying to get my management to realize that #1 is usually the better option because it saves more time over the course of a year. I can spend 8 hours this week to knock 3 hours off a weekly task in the future, at the end of 4 weeks I’ve saved as much time as I spent up front and now anything else until that task scope changes is $PROFIT$ since that freed-up time can be spend on other projects. Start adding in more people, like this weekly task isn’t done by just me but by 6 other people, and the time-savings skyrockets. Why wouldn’t companies want that kind of thing?

          Sadly #2 is what happens when management won’t authorize the up-front process improvement time or the person who could write it up/implement it is overwhelmed with work. It’s easier for me to find an extra 10 minutes to do something inefficient compared to finding a 4 hour block of time to make the +10 minute task more efficient for example. I keep seeing this with the management mindset that says they’ve hired exactly enough people to handle only the current workload vs hiring that extra person or two. If people aren’t constantly running at 100% then they have time to make better products/give better support/improve company efficiency, often to the profit of the company over time.

    3. old curmudgeon*

      I think that one of the most useful words in this process is “Why.”

      “Why are we following these steps in this order? What is the objective and how is that objective served by exactly these steps in this order?”

      “Why was Project ABC such a success, while similar Project XYZ was a flop?”

      “Why did we choose this software option to accomplish our goal rather than that one?”

      Interrogating the reasons behind the choices can lead to some lively and informative discussion that can reveal a whole lot more than just someone complaining. “We follow those steps in that order because if we don’t, the left-handed griznoid will explode.” That can lead to a discussion about why the left-handed griznoid is at risk for exploding, which can lead to an exploration of other ways to mitigate that risk, which may allow different steps or a different order in the process.

      The reasons behind the choices can also reveal an elegant and efficient solution that does not need any further enhancement! This is particularly true in a group of highly competent and experienced people, as it sounds like the OP works with.

      The thing is, until you learn the why, you won’t know if the process is a kludge that exists only to get around a roadblock, or if it is a well-tested and efficient method that achieves the goal in the best possible way.

      I’ve been accused of channeling my inner toddler based on how often I ask “why” questions in the workplace, but inevitably I wind up with a far better understanding as a result. Sometimes it leads to process improvement, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, I have greater confidence in and understanding about what is happening.

  9. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

    Some people wait until after they see changes being made. So if someone has already said ‘hey if you do x, it will make ‘y’ so much easier to do’ please go enact X. Then come back to the team and say ‘it was great that Bob said do X, our process now includes X. What else do you all think can help us get work done faster/better/cheaper/safer/easier/etc?’

    There is no need to expose what you think and put yourself in the line of fire if you know that nothing will change or it might be changed at some arbitrary time in the future, or if you think that there will be a negative reaction to the proposed changes.

    I’m betting Fergus is more of the ‘seen this, played this game, got no results. I’ll just do what I need to do and get my stuff done’ variety. You’re going to have to show results to get him to play again.

    1. TardyTardis*

      That’s right. I used to give suggestions about a few things at one of my jobs. After a while, I stopped.

  10. Works with Military*

    I want to start by saying that it is great that you are soliciting feedback from your employees. However, this line “I suspect it’s because he has a military background and he’s very much a soldier” is pretty demeaning. If people were to say something like, “I suspect it’s because he has a non-profit background and he’s very much used to unprofessional environments” or “I suspect it’s because she has a Muslim upbringing so she is used to not complaining to men” everyone would be up in arms. It is stereotyping an entire group.

    1. OtherSide*

      It’s not demeaning, it’s reality. One of the very, very important parts of military training is that you are obedient and you do not ask questions or challenge authority. Insubordination is literally a crime that comes with severe punishments, jail time and lost benefits, not just a “fireable” offense.

      Some people are better able to let go of that way of living post military, but many are not. The fact of the matter is that complaining, venting, disobedience, and individualism are quashed in the military pretty quickly. It is unique and is not like non-profits (which cover a wide variety of organizations) or Muslims (which also cover a wide variety of beliefs). It’s more like saying that, “Becky is constantly praising people and I suspect it’s because she was a Kindergarten teacher”. Praising people is part and parcel of being a Kindergarten teacher just like following the rules are part and parcel of being in the military.

      1. Observer*

        Except that it’s NOT reality. Insubordination is a crime. Being able to question, on the other hand is not necessarily a crime. There is a difference between the two things.

      2. The Happy Graduate*

        As a currently serving military member, there’s a huge difference between insubordination and questioning/challenging authority. While yes you are expected to do your tasks as assigned, they don’t shut down members who ask questions and suggest better methods for operation. It’s when a member is disrespectful and challenging authority/having a bad attitude that it becomes an issue (especially at low ranks), not when you’re genuinely looking for better solutions. Trust me, people definitely complain and vent in the military like any other job, they just don’t do it in a way that would affect their reputation/impact their job (again like majority of people in any other field).

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Oh good gravy. You’re lumping a massive population of humans together again, that’s the whole problem here.

        Stop looking at it through your clouded lenses. Very single one of my vast amount of former military family, friends and colleagues have never had a problem understanding “insubordination” is no where near answering someone’s questions of “What frustrates you about this civilian job?”

        As someone who actively works to get better treatment for and hopefully one day assistance deprogramming from the military life style, it is not common for them to take it on the chin from some random civilian “management” person. They know the difference between your boss at work and a military officer who can court marshal your ass. Have some respect for the people who have served.

    2. ThatGirl*

      I think there’s a difference between saying “nobody from the military ever complains” and saying “his military background might be part of the reason he doesn’t complain”… you can point out that someone’s background contributes to something without saying that “All X are Y”.

      1. Bostonian*

        Right? OP isn’t saying ALL people like him are like this, rather this may be contributing to it. Not dissimilar from where Alison says for some people it’s due to prior work experiences.

        1. Corporate Goth*

          OP may have meant it as a contributing factor, but that’s not how it was written. It absolutely lumps a large, disparate group together in a negative and demeaning way, as if individual soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coasties have zero personal agency or capacity for individual thought.

          As written: “If I had to suggest a root cause for this, I suspect it’s because he has a military background and he’s very much a soldier. Head down. Do as you’re told. Don’t question authority. Fall in line and get the job done.”

          This attitude shows a lack of understanding of the military that has serious implications for hiring any other veterans, let alone day-to-day interactions and expectations for this employee specifically.

  11. Sleepytime Tea*

    I think as a new manager there’s also a trust level that you have to build first. No one wants to bring up a ton of their concerns to someone who doesn’t really know them yet, and then be labelled as a complainer. If you haven’t yet seen how a manager will handle those concerns, then you may hang back for awhile to see how it goes before you’re willing to put yourself out there.

    I know it seems like a lame suggestion, but an anonymous suggestion box is not a terrible idea. Put it someplace inconspicuous so people don’t have to walk into an obvious area and blatantly be seen putting something in the box. Or set up an e-mail box with IT that strips the sender from the e-mail so that you can’t see who it comes from. Or a quarterly anonymous survey where you ask for feedback about processes and general concerns. Do it thoughtfully. We did this as part of an effort to get more feedback and we were surprised at some of the things we got in that box. Anonymity will help people open up, and not everyone will trust the anonymity, but it’s a start for some people.

    1. Jady*

      Ditto this!

      OP is a new manager. A lot of employees (self included) would not trust them until they’d proven themselves to be both trustworthy and effective at implementing change. That just takes time.

      I’ve had bosses that would ask me for this kind of feedback, and nothing would happen. That’s infuriating. And I’ve had bosses that I have tried to give feedback, and been labeled as a complainer or lectured. Had one dysfunctional workplace where boss rail into me condescendingly “this is how it is at EVERY company”, which was absurd. I’ve never had a boss that actually had the power and authority and interest to implement change.

      Give them time, develop trust, and show them what you’re capable of.

      Still ask for feedback on the regular but don’t be pushy, eventually they’ll speak up.

    2. Uranus Wars*

      But how long is appropriate – this OP says she has been managing this team for 18 months. I agree it takes time to build trust, but there also has to be movement.

      I think OP should change her approach to frame the way Alison suggested. To me that can accomplish you point (build trust and establish buy in) but also get what OP wants (better processes for her people).

      1. squidarms*

        Some people can take years to really trust someone, either naturally or because of past experiences. I’m one of those people, and I constantly have to remind myself “there is no reason for you to be this suspicious of this person when they’ve done nothing to warrant it.” It’s even harder when that person is a work superior, because they have the power to really screw up your life if you find that your trust was misplaced.

        I agree that the wording Allison suggested might help to build at least a little bit of trust. Asking for suggestions about something specific implies that the OP has already identified a problem and is looking for solutions, which might feel less risky to Fergus. Once he sees that the OP actually does want to improve things, he may feel more comfortable pointing out problem areas himself.

    3. Corporate Goth*

      Yeah, at fifteen months I was only starting to get people’s active suggestions, and that was after 15 long months of consistent messaging and making myself vulnerable to the team.

      Targeting the “first follower” advice could apply here as well – the video of the guy dancing alone, who is finally joined by one person, then a mob steadily rushes in. It shows it’s safe to join in.

      I’d also say explaining why you want to achieve certain things is really helpful. I always find I have to over-explain for more people to understand the goal.

  12. RedPony*

    I knew at my last job that a lot of things where horribly wrong. But pressured to name what’s wrong I wouldn’t been able to name even one thing because I’d gotten ised to all that crap to the point it became my new normal. OP mentioned that the former Manager was very lax and didn’t adress problems, maybe Fergus is so deep in the mud that he can’t see the problems anymore and he needs some time and the chance to see things become better before he’s able to make suggestions and even see the problems OP is asking for?
    If that’s the case, it could be useful to give him some examples of legitimate complaints and what OP already did so he has a guideline what kind of answers OP is looking for when she asks him what needs to be improved.

  13. zebra*

    The best way you can encourage people to give critical feedback is to repeatedly SHOW them that you handle it maturely and respectfully. When others in the group give you the type of input you want, make extra sure you’re publicly receiving it, processing it, and following it up in a positive and mature way.

    If you’re constantly asking for him to point out problems, it’s likely that Fergus just has a different definition of “problem” than you do. If my boss was repeatedly asking me what’s frustrating about my work, I would be absolutely baffled and lost for a response. I’d be annoyed that I was being asked to focus on negatives and since I’m a pretty easygoing and chill person, there are a great many weeks where I would legitimately not feel like I had anything frustrating to talk about.

    Instead of asking for the negative, ask for the positive–I’d go even more positive than Alison’s suggested framing. Try things like “What’s already working well in X area that should be expanded?” “What’s your favorite part about Y?” “Can you help me figure out why X is more successful than Z?” “Which would be better, A or B?”

  14. Cordoba*

    I’m my company’s in-house expert in my specialty, and am generally seen as the final authority on questions/plans regarding this field. This seems to reduce people’s willingness to disagree with me or give constructive criticism regarding my conclusions.

    I find it helpful to explicitly state “I definitely don’t have all the answers, and I need the rest of you to second-guess me and make suggestions.”

    When dealing with a direct report, I like to phrase it as “Here’s my thinking on item ABC, I’m not perfect and I’m sure there’s something that could be improved. Can you help me to identify that something?”

  15. oblivion*

    A trait of mine can be a weakness in this respect: I tend to work through/around obstacles without really registering them. I don’t really have the thought “why is this roadblock here? I don’t think we need this” or anything, I just roll with it.

    If my manager asks “are there any issues you have with our process?” my honest answer is probably “no, nothing in our process is bothering me” (I try to look out for subtext, but sometimes it seems like that’s really what someone’s asking). If my manager asks “could you think about ways that we could improve our process?” I’m likely to come up with some good ideas, because now it’s something I’m actively looking for as I go.

  16. Oh No She Di'int*

    Also bear in mind that in many aspects of work (heck, in many aspects of life) people do a lot of “satisficing”. That is, if something doesn’t work, they jerry-rig an improvised solution and then voila! it’s no longer a problem, even if it’s not the most efficient or elegant solution. So people often don’t even register things as a “problem” because they have in fact already solved it. Sort of.

    1. Allonge*

      This. Another way it can go is that people register the problem, look around for possible solutions, figure that any real solution would require way too much investment to solve something that can be worked around and leave it at that. Not all processes need to be optimised all the way.

  17. Richard Hershberger*

    I am with Alison that using the word “complaint” can be a barrier. The medical profession has the same problem. If a doctor asks her patient what is his “complaint,” certain cultures and personalities will shut down. “I don’t have any complaints, Doc,” followed by teasing out why he is in fact there. I come from one of those cultures: If there are no bones sticking out, rub some dirt on it and go back to work. Working in personal injury law, I can spot those guys and have a set speech about how I personally admire the attitude, but the witness stand is the one time in your life when you really need to suppress that urge.

    In the work environment, asking for suggestions for improvement might work better.

  18. NW Mossy*

    Another key element: how you respond to the ideas is potentially more important than asking for them in the first place.

    I got an excellent real-life lesson in this when I took over my most recent team. They’d been conditioned by their previous manager not to bring up improvement ideas because of what he did with them: absolutely nothing. Over time, his team realized that his inbox was a dead end and stopped bringing it up – if nothing ever changes as a result, why bother?

    Avoiding this is pretty easy – show that you take suggestions seriously by responding thoughtfully and telling the team what happens to every idea, every time. If you kill an idea as unworkable, take 5 minutes to explain why you made that decision. If you’re interested in an idea but don’t have enough data to decide if it’s a good one, work with your employees on testing it out in small scale. If you try an idea and it flops, you debrief with them to assess where it went wrong and decide if you’ll revamp to try again or not.

  19. mgguy*

    I’ve been in the situation before where managers solicited “honest” and “frank” feedback for supposed “improvements” and it ended up backfiring on me-essentially almost like those managers were playing “good cop” and framing the higher ups as “bad cop” when really anything I said could be used against me.

    As an example, at the time one of my job duties was being the contact person and also usually the person who filled certain types of requests made to our department. At the time, those were frankly a mess-some would come as a simple, generically titled email, some would be an in-person conversation, some would be a note left on my desk or in my mailbox, and some would be a conversation with my manager who would relay the details(often incorrectly) to me. I’d developed a tracking system-nothing elaborate, just a simple spreadsheet-to make sure they were completed, but given the different ways they were coming at me I’d still completely miss some, especially when they were supposed to be relayed through my manager.

    So, given all the talk of “I want everyone’s input on how to make things better”, I developed a couple of practical suggestions to streamline the process. One was just a simple form with a date, description, contact person, and date needed, and I had at least a draft of such a form prepared. Another was working with IT to set up a web portal where the request to be entered and then sent to a dedicated email account. A third was just an agreed-upon convention for how things would be communicated to me(i.e. only email, only on paper, etc). I thought all were reasonable, especially when I explained why.

    That was twisted around to “MG guy is complaining to me and wants us to completely redo things because he’s too disorganized to do the job he’s supposed to do.” It was taken badly enough that it went on my performance evaluation that year-in fact that was the only evaluation where I’ve actually written a response other than “I recognize and will do x.y, z to correct these deficiencies.” Fortunately, that manager was gone 6 months later. Still, though, it bit me badly enough that I’ve been a bit gun-shy since about voicing feedback to a supposedly open manager until I know then enough to realize they actually ARE open to feedback and not speaking hollow words higher ups want them to say.

  20. PollyQ*

    Question for OP to ask herself: Would it be so terrible if Fergus never offered a “complaint”, or suggestion for improvement? Could he be successful in his job role without that? If so, then maybe stop expecting/encouraging/demanding that he do so. If, as you say, he’s a strong performer and doesn’t seem to be unhappy, then maybe there’s no benefit to leaning on him to change.

    1. Ann Perkins*

      This. It could be that his personality lends itself to genuinely not having pet peeves and not constantly nitpicking. Not every single person in an organization needs to be constantly trying to make process improvements.

    2. Myrin*

      Yeah, I was a bit… “put off” is maybe too strong a sentiment (but I don’t know how to phrase it better at the moment so let’s leave it for now) by this sentence : “I know not everything is perfect, you have to have SOMETHING that frustrates you, I want to help fix it.”

      Because, well, he doesn’t have to, really. You yourself describe him as an outstanding worker in a well-rounded team in what sounds like a respectful and strong company. It might simply be that the “silly, stupid, and wasteful things” are not silly or wasteful enough for him to complain about but instead just minor annoyances. He might know about them but not be directly affected. He might be able to effectively work around them. He might just be someone who is generally content with how things are (I am like that, personally; I will readily complain about unfair treatment or really outstanding violations but in general, I’m very easygoing and there isn’t much that bothers me).

      The sentence I quoted reminded me of the painfully awkward instances in university where we had a guest speaker and after their speech, they’d set aside ten minutes for questions from the audience and then no one ever asked any questions. And while I’m sure that for some students, that was simply because they hadn’t listened properly or weren’t interested in the subject or only understood half of what the speaker said or whatever, I can say that for me personally (and I’m willing to bet that was the case for others as well), well, my brain just doesn’t work that way.
      To ask questions after a speech I have to either not understand something so that I will want to clarify or find it so outstandingly awesome and interesting that I immediately want to learn everything there is about any even slightly related topic. Which happens extremely rarely. But with any regular old speech, I will listen to it and absorb it and maybe even like it but I won’t feel the need to inquire further about it because I’m content with what I just heard. And I absolutely hated that “There must be something you want to ask the speaker, right?!” question at uni and I would hate this very similar sentiment at my workplace as well.

  21. MK*

    OP, do follow Alison’s advice, but also do consider that Fergus might not have any complaints to speak of. Your company sounds a well-functioning one, and if he is a top performer, it’s likely that he finds the processes are working just fine for him; also, some people don’t see the point in getting frustrated with annoyances, they find ways to work with them or around them.

  22. Public Sector Manager*

    I’ve been managing for 10 years and when people don’t speak up, frequently it has a lot to do with their last manager. Did their prior manager throw people under the bus when they spoke up? Did they talk over members of the team when they shared new ideas? Did their prior manager cultivate new ideas and then never implement any of them (or even try to implement any new ideas)? Or did their prior manager steal their ideas and the manager claimed all the credit?

    When working with a new team, you can’t underestimate the effect of modeling proper behavior. If you want people to share, make sure that you are sharing when it comes to dealing with your team.

    One way I’ve always been able to get people to open us is to lead with: “I need your help.” That really opens a lot of doors with communication.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Yeah. I was super optimistic when I got a new manager at my last job after our old toxic one finally got promoted out of our department asked us for our suggestions to try to stem the constant turnover in our department.

      When I presented our suggestions, she shot each one down with a reason why she couldn’t even consider them.

      We got pizza one day instead.

      Turnover continued. *shrug*

      I actually asked Alison about why managers solicit feedback, then either get really defensive or have no intention acting on it at all. She said that for a lot of managers, “soliciting feedback” is what they think “good” managers do, so they do it in a perfunctory, “I’m checking the solicit-feedback box” kind of way, with no actual plan about what to do with that feedback.

  23. animaniactoo*

    I think you need to take it out of asking him about HIS feelings about anything and turn to digging in to the functionality.

    “Process X takes the longest time to complete. What are the roadblocks that make it take so long? What’s your process for getting through them?” “Which process takes up the most time?” “What do you spend the most time waiting for pieces before you can proceed with your part?” and so on.

    Ask him to break down the work itself, NOT how he feels about it. He may be so into individual problem-solving that he’s fine to keep carrying on that way forever because it WORKS for him – clearly it works for him since by your own evaluation he’s an excellent employee with great work product. So what you’re asking him to do with the phrasing you’ve been focusing on around his feelings about it is… complain about what works for him.

    It honestly might be as simple as the difference between “If you could change any one thing about System X, what would you want?” and “What’s the one thing you can pinpoint that would make System X better or more efficient?”

    However, think about the idea that he may not be able to do that and you would have to change your game plan from getting him to tell you what’s wrong to having him walk you through what’s happening and breaking it down step by step so that YOU understand and can suggest improvements yourself. He may be a small picture person who can solve the small picture as it happens, which is absolutely valuable and a different skill set from the big picture person who can see that small step 5A creates a 3 week holdup and that’s worth investigating to see if it can be shaved down to a 1 week process.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Agreed! Maybe positioning it as “how do you think we could reduce the time for X by 25%?” would also work

  24. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    OP, are you asking for this type of feedback in a group setting/team meeting, or individually? Whichever it is, he might be more forthcoming in the other setting.

    You might also get Fergus to contribute if you share a list of initiatives with the team (based on what you know could be improved and feedback from your other team members) and them to work together to prioritise it, or rank them in terms of impact. He may find this more palatable – it’s a bit like ranking product features.

  25. BeenThere*

    This sounds like a dream team and you sounds like an awesome manager. The reality is there are individual contributors who aren’t going to do this because they’ve been burned in the past or they know it isn’t going to make a tangible difference because of wider disfunction they can’t solve. Often the politics of an organizations come into play. Here’s some examples of why I don’t bother raising anything useful anymore:
    – I raised serious issues with a project manager using a process that they were asked to hold of using while we worked with all the developer’s on the team to build harmony for a period of six weeks. They did not, in spite of being asked multiple times with their boss present and my boss present and being told what damage it was doing to the team. They were removed from the project, a decision I wasn’t privy to. Not the outcome I wanted either. Later my boss used that as an example of how I was a bad engineer and framed it as “I wanted them kicked off the project”.
    – I could do a major refactor of the code and make it more supportable and maintainable. I tested the waters with a small clear change with tests to enforce it and waited to see if the discipline was there in the team. The very next sprint somebody went back to the old way and disabled the tests so their changes would pass. This was one of those code reflects the organization situation.
    – Told repeatedly that we need to solve technical problem x, spend the effort and time to research and create a prototype after asking lots of questions. Present the industry standard solution to boss, boss doesn’t like it because it used technology Y that the team he doesn’t like is pushing for.
    – I raise normal issues with my boss and get told, yeah there’s a history why it was done that way and if we were to start it today we’d totally do it the way you are suggesting but everyone else here knows how to do it the other way. Never mind the fact we lose good candidates and good engineers because of this attitude. Imagine working in an office that was still running Windows 95 and they were unwilling to even upgrade to Windows XP.
    – low hanging fruit gets rewarded better that solving tough intractable problems, guess which people are going to find easy to solve issues that have great results as long as you don’t dig into how the results were derived.

    TLDR; Experienced folks are only going to put energy into things that will persist and have an incentive for them to do. Too many businesses I’ve worked in simply expect people to be excited about making their business more efficient when those people aren’t going to get rewarded for it and will often be punished if they pick the wrong thing. All stick and no carrot makes a quiet employee.

    1. Mel_05*

      Yeah, my experience has often been that my feedback is praised – and then ignored.

      So, no matter how welcome my complaints may be, I’ll be hesitant to raise them unless I can see that issues are taken seriously and fixed when possible.

      At my current job I’m learning which issues I can raise and which will get affirmation without action. Over time, I’ll stop bringing up the latter.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I agree. I had a job where we were in an environment where we had a lot of workarounds due to our Grandboss. My boss left and I did not put in for the job due to Grandboss; I didn’t want to report to her directly. We had someone who was a new-and-green employee come in with all these Great! Ideas! As! To! How! To! Fix! Things! apply for the promotion before he’d been with us long enough to really get a feel for the place.

      One day I got fed up and was like, “Look. You’re right. We SHOULD do all those things. But we can’t and here’s why,” and was completely candid with him as to what the obstacles were to doing such things. He wouldn’t believe me. He got the promotion, and was gone halfway through his 90 day probationary period, because he refused to acknowledge all of the institutional obstacles that had to be navigated (plus, he was disorganized and a rude jerk.)

      1. BeenThere*

        This resonates so much, I avoided a promotion for exactly this reason. I’ve never been lucky enough to witness someone fail that fast after being promoted to management. The schadenfreude is strong with this tale.

  26. lazuli*

    It might also be helpful to switch to Alison’s suggested framing for everyone, not just Fergus. It could be that he hates hearing people complaining all day long, too, and your framing has made him feel like now all his co-workers are complaining all the time — which may be pushing him to want to avoid adding to the seeming “negativity” even more.

  27. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    You could also ask Fergus to be a part of documenting processes for his role Sometimes when we see all the steps written out, we can start to see where issues might lie — or at least provide a shared resource for addressing various elements.
    He might not have a problem with the roadblock as it stands, but if given the opportunity to look at it with you, might be able to envision something better.

  28. D3*

    I’m thinking when he finally does tell you what frustrates him, the answer is going to be “you badgering me to complain about stuff when I have no complaints!”
    Maybe stop *talking TO him* to try and get him to come up with a complaint. Instead show him by real, consistent action over time, that you’re committed to improvement.
    And know that employees do not HAVE to complain. If he’s got nothing, he’s got nothing.
    In my job of nearly 20 years, I have zero complaints. There have been times that I did, but for probably 80% of the time I’ve worked there, no complaints. My boss is great, I have the materials I need to do my work, I feel valued.
    If my boss came to me and told me that there must be SOMETHING and bugged me to tell her what it was, that would be a problem!

  29. Mr. Cajun2core*

    Fergus needs to see that ideas for improvement are truly welcome. The way to do that is to make sure the following are done:
    1. Implement suggestions that were made by others. This needs to be done as quickly and visibly as possible.
    2. The person who made the suggestion must be publicly acknowledged and thanked.
    3. There can be *absolutely* no public (and I would say even private) criticisms of any suggestions which are made.
    4. There can be absolutely no repercussions for making *any* suggestions.
    5. If a suggestion cannot be implemented, a highly logical reason must be stated and the person who made the suggestion should still be acknowledged and thanked.

    As a person who was told that suggestions were welcomed and then punished for making them I believe that Fergus needs to feel “safe” in making suggestions. He needs to see that he will not be reprimanded/punished (in any form) for making suggestions even if they are stupid.

    I have to clarify that my “punishments” were not overt and at times were very subtle. Fergus needs to see that this will *not* happen.

    It wasn’t until the department head and one of her #2’s left and new people came in and I saw that it was safe to make suggestions and to speak up that I started to speak up again.

    1. College Career Counselor*

      The longer I go in my career, the more I see that suggestions/process improvements/programmatic ideas need three conditions to flourish:

      1) The necessary internal circumstances (e.g. sufficient budget, labor capacity)
      2) Significant external pressures (there’s an alignment between what the organization is being pushed to consider/do and what you’re suggesting–new product/service, opening a new market, supporting a new constituency)
      3) The correct audience (ie, buy-in from the powers that be–or put another way, the will to support it)

      Of these, I suspect that #3 is the most important because I have lost count of how many times in the last 15 years, I’ve said “what about XYZ?” only to have it ignored or shot down. And then magically, someone who hasn’t heard it yet* (or who is new to management) says “CCC, that’s great idea–let’s do it!” Sometimes that happens with your current employer, and sometimes it happens at your next. So, if you do have a new idea and you’re not getting traction, shop it around if you can.

      *But you do have to pick your spots and not become a tireless advocate for something you’ve been repeatedly told “no” on.

  30. JSPA*

    OP, if you’re looking for them to be more analytical and less “in the moment,” one way to prompt for it is go at it backwards. List processes, ask if they’ve seen any of them done differently elsewhere. Ask, “Where is ours better? Are there any downsides?”

    But it’s also possible that it’s not in their interests to help you cut.

    You may find that what you’d tag as inefficiencies, they think of as quality control, or an automatic cross-check, and that it has real value to them. More people in management want to streamline for the sake of streamlining, than understand why a non-streamlined process was set up in the first place. Equally, if they’re already running lean, and you’ve been brought in to cut waste, that may add up in their minds to, “we’re currently four people doing the job of five. If they can claim further efficiencies, they’ll cut us to three people doing the job of five.” (Remember, even if the people who hired you never said it to you, in so many words, you can’t know it’s not part of their plan.)

    As well as increasing self-awareness, another benefit of framing this as a “compare and contrast broadly, including strengths and weaknesses” question is that it gives you a chance to make it clear that you’re not going to cut ruthlessly for the sake of pointing and saying, “Look what I did” (or allowing the people above you to add more work, or make one of them redundant).

    They may be more comfortable willing to open up about things that could be changed.

    Finally, you don’t mention how often management has brought someone in to clean the process before. If they’ve had to switch to some shiny new process a couple of times in the past…and it was a pain to learn…and it created new / different problems they couldn’t easily anticipate and fix…and then they were allowed to go back to the old way when that manager threw up her hands and left…they’re not going to be eager to play that one again.

    So asking for history and context could also be clarifying.

  31. Larz*

    For some reason, I’m imagining being in a relationship with a person acting this way, saying things like “Come on, there must be SOMETHING about me you’d like to change!” Congrats, me, on giving yourself nightmares! I mean…honest answers to hard questions come only when you’ve established trust, not by pushing.

  32. NRG*

    It might also be useful to ask what parts of the work process are going well, and that he ( and other team members ) want to keep in their present form.

  33. anon73*

    I agree that you need to reframe your ask, but you also need to consider that not everyone is bothered by the same things. Some people are hard core complainers where nothing makes them happy, while others could be “go with the flow” type people where nothing bothers them (and others are something in between). Just focus on building a trusted relationship with your team, so they are comfortable coming to you with legitimate issues, and don’t focus so much on the lack of complaints.

  34. JokeyJules*

    an analogy i’ve seen get successful response is,

    Our organization is a house. walls, doors, roof, windows, etc. I think we all can agree that in our own homes, theres a squeaky door, loose tile, drippy faucet, loose doorknob, smelly basement – something. any great house has something. What is ours? what small things could be improved if you had the toolkit?

  35. The Happy Graduate*

    I suspect that Fergus has just already worked out the kinks he found and works in a way that lets him be efficient. You say he’s a fantastic and reliable employee and your team members have been there for a long time, so it makes sense that he’s already handled what frustrated him and now it’s just small, insignificant things that do and he doesn’t think it’s worth making a big deal about. To me that seems to be the most likely scenario, especially if you’re focusing on what makes his job harder.

  36. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    You also might evaluate the possibility that your team has already implemented the improvements that they could foresee and control.

  37. Betsy S*

    Heh is it wrong that my first thought was “Hire me! I know how to complain!”

    Another thought – sometimes ‘improvement’ is also too vague. Do you have a sense of any particular processes that might need improvement, and/or can you find some more specific examples?

    -It takes us six hours to make a teapot. How does that time break down? If we wanted to make one in four hours, what would have to speed up?
    -This week, was there any time that you had to stop working on a project because you were waiting for something?
    -when you make a teapot, how many systems do you have to touch ?

    Probably real process improvement gurus have better ideas, but I’m thinking that talking him through a process, or a typical or busy day, may help you uncover things. Or there may really be nothing in particular to uncover. If you don’t see anything broken, there might not be anything to fix.

  38. CommanderBanana*

    Also? I have been so thoroughly and repeatedly burned by managers asking for feedback and then being shat all over for doing what they asked that I just reflexively delete all employee feedback surveys and rarely give feedback even when asked. It would take a LOT for me to trust a manager enough to actually give them feedback and I certainly wouldn’t do it for someone new I didn’t have a good rapport with.

    That is not your fault! But just something to consider.

  39. Chinook*

    How about framing them as “lessons learned,” especially after something has been completed? That way, they can reinforce things that work well and do not want changed as well as how things could be improved or even tweaked.

    As well. if they enjoy their work and are content, it may take a few weeks before they even see something that could need improvement. I have worked in places that ran smoothly and even the “inefficiencies” weren’t anything to complain about. But, if I had been given a few weeks and stumbled across something that was mildly annoying during a monthly task, I might only think about it once a month.

  40. Des*

    Look, OP, I am a frank person who will bring complaints if I have them to management, but I don’t have something that I can bring to management right now that is actionable. For example, what am I unhappy with? I’m unhappy with having to wash my groceries, with having to work from home because the office is closed, with cold winter coming, with the every day stress of life/work/family. Can my manager do something about that? No. Sometimes it’s just not worth mentioning the things that you really are stressed about because they cannot be changed, and thinking about it does not make me happy. In fact, being constantly asked “what challenges are you facing?” is going to eventually drive me to anxiety, because since it doesn’t line up with my worldview, it will make me think I’m missing something. Should I be upset? Should I be noticing something my manager seems to be hinting at that I’m just not seeing? Etc.

    I would just let this one go and gently remind people that your door is open to talk at any time (virtually speaking).

    1. Des*

      Put another way: it’s quite possible that the things that are bothering Fergus are not thing that he wants to bring to you at work, and the rest are trivial in comparison.

  41. Lalitah28*

    I have to agree with other commenters that the issue is framing the request as “complaints” which has a negative connotation.

    If you re-frame it as “process improvement” or “continuous improvement”, then you have reframed it as a business problem to solve. And that’s what you want to hear as a manager!

    If you want to give the brainstorming structure, try the Six Thinking Hats approach by Dr. Edward de Bono:

  42. Budgie Buddy*

    Many times I’ve been in classes where a prof ends the lecture with “Does anyone have any questions?” Waits a few seconds, and then says “Well if there are no questions…” Somehow even when I really need clarification, my mind goes totally blank. I think a lot of people are like this. It’s hard to filter back through the hour and identify the parts you might need to ask a question about.

    OP is in a similar situation. Having good intentions and being open to feedback is good, but a person in authority also needs to be proactive about anticipating problem areas and creating multiple opportunities to check in with people. Even sending an email reminder before a 1-1 meeting saying that you will be asking for feedback/improvements can be helpful because people can take a few minutes to think of stuff and write it down.

    It can be an additional burden for employees to both do their jobs and also be troubleshooting their workflow and reporting that back to their manager. Asking for perspective on specific issues as they come up may also be helpful toward getting useful information. Make their “job” of complaining as easy as possible!

    1. orangewater*

      I was thinking along these lines as well. I’m in a new role right now, and my manager – who means well – is always encouraging me to ask questions in meetings. She seems concerned that I am secretly full of questions and just too introverted/shy/whatever to ask them. But really and truly, it’s just that my mind goes blank in the meeting. I’m not afraid to ask questions, I just can’t ever seem to think of any when someone puts me on the spot!

      I think my manager processes this all as me being weirdly recalcitrant. Since she is someone who can ask 712 pertinent questions about absolutely any topic completely off the top of her head, I think it’s really hard for her to imagine *just not knowing what to say.* I’m getting a similar vibe from LW.

    2. mgguy*

      That’s why-when I’m teaching-I pause and solicit questions any time I present a concept in lecture, and try to foster an environment where my students feel comfortable speaking up and stopping me at any point if they are lost on something. Granted it doesn’t work for everyone, but getting questions in the moment(or paying attention to your class and seeing that the nodding “yes I get it” comes with a stumped expression-something that unfortunately doesn’t work as well in Zoom) can help a lot of students avoid forgetting their question at the end or whatever. Granted I think it’s in my contract that I have to say “are there any questions” at the end of a lecture :) , but I almost never get them because they’ve been asked along the way.

      Still, though I get what you’re saying. When I’m sitting in a talk/presentation, I often jot questions in the margins of my notes so if something is not clarified later in the talk I can remember to ask about it, but I also attend a lot fewer talks now than I did as a student.

      1. Budgie Buddy*

        Oooof teaching on Zoom must suck. Can’t really divide people into pairs and circle the room to see who’s nailed it and who’s lagging. :P

        I’m a big fan of mini exercises in classes, less “Do you understand y/n?” more “Now see if you can apply this…” I’m actually in a Zoom writing club now, which is different than a class, but we always have a 15 minute prompt and it’s definitely the best part.

        1. mgguy*

          Zoom does have “breakout rooms” which can work well for that, to an extent, but it’s still not the same as being there.

          I teach Chemistry, and especially for math stuff, but really for any more hands-on type problem, I’ll usually work an example in class, then give them an example to work on their own, come back and solicit the correct answers from them a couple of minutes later. Even in smaller ways, I try to work in ways to reinforce concepts other than the “do you get this?” As an example, yesterday I taught one particular concept that was important, but also tied into most other stuff we were doing. We’d work an example, and then I’d just toss in at the end of it, “By the way, is this endo or exothermic”, and I think by doing that I at least had THAT concept planted firmly by the end of class, even if some of the other stuff.

          I’ve always done things like that in the classroom, and fortunately those DO translate well into Zoom, even if there’s not the sort of peer-pressure “I see everyone around me trying this so I should too” that happens with in person classes.

  43. Researcher*

    Hmmm. I realize that part of why OP was hired was to find solutions to problems, but if my manager was constantly *seeking* problems to fix, I might find myself wondering whether he has enough to do. The optics of that may not be working in your favor.

    I like a manager that identifies something as a problem when they come across it, and realizes, hey, we can improve this for the next time. But proactively seeking out problems to solve while everyone else is staying sufficiently busy might build some resentment. I guess my suggestion is to be aware of how often you’re asking.

    1. Pennyworth*

      I found a disconnect with the following two elements of OP’s letter
      ”They’re high-performing and thoughtfully recognized by company leadership. We’re all trusted and no one questions our output volume or quality. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to help me dip my toes back into management.”
      ”Like every other company on the planet, we do silly, stupid and wasteful things and those things are my pet peeves.”
      1. So are they a dream team or are they prone to do silly, stupid and wasteful things?
      2. And if OP is aware of those silly, stupid and wasteful things why is she calling for ”complaints” about them rather than just addressing them?
      She seems to have become fixated with Fergus.

      1. Researcher*

        I suspect OP means that there are probably *other* inefficiencies, similar to the ones they’ve already identified. And that may very well be true! To your point, it does seem incongruent to say that your employees are rockstars, followed by this critique about not identifying enough problems to solve. OP should trust their employees to continue being excellent, because excellent employees know when to raise issues that need resolutions.

        I commend OP for wanting to be such a proactive problem solver, but I solve problems as they come to me. Perhaps my team is short-staffed, but I don’t have the resources to have someone spend time actively looking for problems to solve.

  44. hbc*

    The reframing is so important, and the funniest thing is that I was personally asking questions that I would have answered in an unhelpful way. As in, “Do you need help with this?” I’m not alone in basically never saying “Yes” to this question.

    If I say, “Would an extra hand speed this along?”, or “What’s most likely to trip up someone who doesn’t have your knowledge and experience?,” suddenly it’s not tied up in their ego anymore.

    1. Researcher*

      Oh I like this approach!
      Someone’s “knowledge and experience” is often how to get around the roadblocks, too. They’ve been doing it for so long they don’t realize it’s an inefficiency. Voila, you’ve got your answer.

  45. learnedthehardway*

    I think you need to approach this from the perspective of process improvement – instead of getting people to tell you what bugs them (which feels superficial and sounds more like you’re asking them to tell you how you can support them), ask them to look at the business processes and identify ways that they could be improved to make the department work more efficiently, reduce costs, reduce rework, improve speed, and keep better records, etc. etc.

    Make it part of their performance evaluation – that will ensure people realize you really want them to identify opportunities for process improvement.

  46. Chance of thunderstorm*

    Another possibility is taking note of how Ferguson communicates. I’ve worked with people that say ‘um maybe we should…’ and it’s a suggestion. However that same phrase from another person means ‘if you don’t pay attention to this right now all hell will break loose.’

  47. Tau*

    Coincidentally, I was discussing this with my own manager in my performance review. Like many devs, I work in an environment claiming to do some form of Agile. Continual process improvement and reflecting on what went wrong and how it could be improved is a big part of how we work. And you know what? I’m bad at this. I’m not good at looking back and going “oh, this wasn’t great” and I’m *especially* not good at bridging the gap from there to what could possibly be done to improve it. I’ve been in the position to have my boss ask me “so, what do you think we should change? what complaints to you have?” and to basically shrug my shoulders in their general direction.

    Something that helps, and could help in your case too, is to have the process improvement discussions be group discussions. Although if you sit me down and ask me “so what could we change?” my mind will go blank, I can often work with things introduced by others and build off their ideas. At minimum I can say “oh yeah, I totally agree with $Coworker”. (I imagine this might help in the case of past job trauma too, because the guy can see his whole team giving feedback and isn’t singled out.)

    But you might just have to accept that you’re not going to get much in the way of process improvement suggestions out of the guy because that’s not how he works, for whatever reason. I myself am grateful my boss went “OK, I understand, no one can be good at everything, let’s focus on your strengths in X and Y” when I mentioned this weakness instead of continuing trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

  48. Kara S*

    Complaining and giving feedback aren’t the same thing. If you are phrasing things like you do in your letter, your reports might feel like you’re asking them to be negative or whine when in reality you just want to know how they feel things are running.

    1. Pennyworth*

      I got a very negative vibe from the letter – feedback is characterized as complaint; every company on the planet does silly, stupid and wasteful things; the military mindset is one of mindless obedience etc. I think the OP could benefit from a whole lot of reframing.

  49. Hiring Mgr*

    What’s the worst that could happen if Fergus never gives you the feedback you’re looking for but continues to be a great performer? Maybe just let it lie – if the others are more open than you’ll have your answers

  50. Just a visitor*

    I don’t know if this would improve amount of responses or not but is there a way you can assign this to a lead or maybe make a progress team or something. Then they can filter what they find to you? I’m thinking if the staff can all be together without management they may feel more comfortable talking freely. Obviously you can’t watch that meeting with a one way mirror so you’ll need a go between. I’m not sure if that set up would make people more or less trustful, I guess it depends on the person. But depending on the topic I might feel more comfortable talking and brainstorming among my peers and then the lead can deliver a final report like the “team discovered/ thought up/ has a solution, etc”.

    Getting insight into business processes can be hard until you’ve gained trust that it won’t blow up in their faces to be critical of a process or that it will be worthwhile. When I was new to the business world I wouldn’t mind chipping in ideas for processes but 9 times out 10 they went nowhere. So why bother.

  51. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’m confused why you’re so set in thinking that there’s always something, somewhere that must frustrate someone.

    I’m the sort of person who does speak up if something is inefficient or frustrating to try to get it solved. This is why I made my way into management in the first place really.

    First of all, it’s not complaining. It’s observing and speaking to the correct person about something that may need attention to either tweak, fix or maybe even eliminate a problem. It’s strange to lump it under “Complaining”, which has a negative tone to it. It’s communication.

    Second you have to continue to be open to feedback and let everyone know you appreciate their knowledge of processes and things that they’re directly working with, more than someone on the outside usually does. Just continue to ask and engage in the conversations. But don’t start harping and needling them that they must have something going on that they need to address with you. That’s actually something that’d get me to say “What’s frustrating is that you continue to insist something is frustrating me. The only thing bothering me is you. I will let you know if something comes up but it may never actually be necessary to speak to you about.”

    You’re trying hard to be a good manager and you’ve got a good idea about it. But you’re also really tripping up here as well. If someone kept pestering me and didn’t cut it out, I’d be looking to leave that team.

  52. Kevin Sours*

    So first off, this really stood out to me: “I really don’t tolerate incessant, non-productive ‘observations’ all day long very well”. If you want people to provide feedback you have to be welcoming of it. And that means tolerating feedback that you can’t act on or otherwise find “non-productive”. Because people are going to have different views about what is and isn’t productive. It really doesn’t take much backlash for people to clam up. You are the boss and people don’t want to annoy the boss. Make sure that you really are treating feedback graciously.

    Second, is the problem with the team or with Fergus. If you have people who *are* coming through with the feedback you want, then one approach would be to have team retrospectives to go over problems and process improvement. The point *isn’t* to single Fergus out but to provide examples of the kind of discussions you want to have and to demonstrate that feedback will be handled constructively (it helps to demonstrate that feedback will result is positive changes).

    Third, I’ve had good luck “standup” meetings to keep tabs on people and surface frustrations. Particularly with a remote team. One of things we emphasize is “what is getting in the way of your current task” and even when people are reluctant to spell it out, there are frequently verbal clues about where problems are that allow you ask more specific questions like “is there something about X that I can do to help you out?” that might provide information that “what can we change so you can do your job better?” won’t.

    But, ultimately, harassing Fergus over it is likely to be counter productive — it’s possible that he doesn’t have anything he really wants to do differently.

  53. Lyn By the River*

    I’m definitely someone who struggles to answer the point blank question about “what could we do better.” (this is likely part of my family upbringing to “not be a bother to anyone, ever, for any reason.” yikes.)
    I wonder if there are other approaches that could help pull out feedback that people may not even realize. There are Human Centered Design activities (like “card sorting” for prioritization or journey mapping) that can walk people through things that they may take for granted in order to identify where opportunities to make changes could happen. IDEO has a bunch of these activities available on their website that I’ve started using and it has been EYE OPENING.

  54. complaintanon*

    I always feel like this is a trap coming from management. The way to foster trust with your employees is to be as open with them as possible and receive everything they say with an open mind.

    I started a new job recently and my boss has been pressing me lately with “are you happy, is everything going well, etc etc” type questions and I literally can’t be honest. I can’t tell her that I hate my job duties, it’s nothing like what I expected, I’m bored out of my skull, and I feel completely alienated from the rest of the team.

    So I just smile and nod.

  55. LizM*

    My group does after action reviews, and I find them helpful.

    We try to keep them simple: what was planned? what actually happened? why did it happen? what are we going to do next time?

    Some people don’t like to point out the negative. I find framing it more neutrally can help get them started and engaged. That also lets you spend time on what went well, which is helpful to reflect on.

    As a supervisor, you need to build trust. It’s not clear what the turnover in your role is, but I know a lot of people who are used to new managers coming in with a ton of ideas and then flaming out quickly. They don’t like investing a lot of energy in what may end up being a flash in the pan.

    I’d highly recommend the book “the First 90 Days.” Even if youre beyond that timeframe, it had some good suggestions for how to talk to your employees to get information about their priorities and ideas.

  56. RagingADHD*

    Possibly Fergus knows that any suggestions are going to turn into new projects that he is tasked with, on top of the excellent work you say he’s already doing.

    Perhaps he feels he already has enough work to do, without inventing new deliverables for himself.

  57. Points for Anonymity*

    Yeah, you’re not asking for complaints, you’re asking for them to share their knowledge and expertise on the company, work, processes and systems.

  58. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    “You must have something that frustrates you”
    “Well, my boss constantly asks me for complaints when I haven’t got any. That can be frustrating”

  59. Former ops manager*

    My suggestion – try a little role play.
    Start easy.
    Get out a list of some proposed changes in a narrow area. They can range from tiny and a no brainer to do to clearly stupid and crazy with everything in between. Get your status quo employee to play the role of defender of the status quo. Have him say why should this not be done.

    Over time get him to switch up roles and see if you can get him to loosen up by distancing himself from what he’s proposing through the role he’s playing.

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