Q. Recently, I was leading a meeting at work with about fifteen colleagues to get some feedback about the culture at work. I put out some questions and informed them that their responses would be confidential and their feedback would be used to evaluate different aspects of the workplace and management. Although I know various people feel very positive about their jobs and organization, the unhappy and more critical employees spoke up first with a lot of passion. They were then joined by several others who kept finding fault. I didn’t know how to balance the meeting by asking them to comment on things they liked. I felt so embarrassed and felt it was my fault. Even though none of them targeted me, I still took it personally. I went home feeling exhausted, confused, scared and resentful. I don’t know quite how to understand what happened or ways to run a meeting so it doesn’t turn into a totally negative complaint session?
A. Wow, this sounds very challenging, and there are several aspects of this situation that are worth a deeper look. First, there seems to have been a trust in the room for employees to speak pretty candidly and say things that you wouldn’t like. Do you think that your inviting them to share in confidence allowed them to be more open? This is a credit to your listening without defensive reacting and shutting them down. From what you have written, it doesn’t sound like it was directed at you personally. I can appreciate that since you are listening to everything and they are speaking to you in the room, you would feel responsible. Nonetheless, if you look at the whole culture at work, how much do you think is true and why would this group let it out so directly?
There is also the phenomenon of people bonding through complaining and group-mind. Negativity unfortunately brings people together, especially when they can focus that on an organization or a leader. Is your management authoritative and out of touch with the various employees and levels of management? If so, you can see why these folks would speak this way. To balance the situation at the meeting a bit, you could frame the questions more specifically so that both sides—negative and positive are spoken. You would need to specifically ask people to name what they like for a part of the meeting and what they want different for another part of the meeting. You could also add how they contribute to each side or ways they could make things better for themselves. Human nature wants leaders, parents and government, to fix things. We are realizing that change happens very slowly. Is your organization ready for some change and why did they ask you to get this feedback? If your boss sees at least some of these complaints as legitimate, then here is an opportunity to create change.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist of Indian descent in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com