Employees complain. How leaders respond determines success.

Early in my career, I would go to my manager every time an issue arose.

He got so sick of this that he yelled, "Fanning, don't you ever come in here again with a complaint unless you've thought of three possible solutions." Then he lit up a cigarette in a non-smoking facility and blew smoke in my face.

While he didn't get style points, his response inspired me to become a more creative, innovative leader for the company.

Instead of the proverbial eye roll and involving HR, use employee complaints to propel your group forward. Reframe whine into a wave of positive possibility for your group.

Before you turn your office into a "no complaining zone", make sure you read these tips first.

With little effort, a complaint around vacation policy, working hours, and even pay can represent an opportunity to increase revenue, boost employee engagement, and develop leadership.

I'll illustrate how you can use this with your team by taking a real world whine and applying the steps to turn it into a win.

Here are five ways to turn employee complaints into something much better:

1. Capture complaints, pan for gold later

Employee complaining is everywhere...not just employee satisfaction surveys. You may find helpful complaints in a tirade email, marathon conference call, staff meeting, etc...

Commit to keeping a list on Evernote or other note-keeping service. Return to your list later and notice patterns of common challenges. These provide golden opportunities to turn whine into a company win.

2. Ask questions, uncover the real issue

It's tempting to solve these complaints yourself, but eventually that leads to burnout. Instead, ask questions and probe.

You'll uncover the real issue and it becomes easier to enroll the complaining employee in solving their own problem. Imagine the innovative outcomes that could result.

3. Reframe the problem as opportunity

Complaints signal opportunity. Push yourself and your team to brainstorm positive results that could come from addressing the complaints.

Many leaders never get to this point. Encourage your team to dig deep with one of these powerful reframing questions:

  • What opportunity could this complaint represent?
  • What's the best that could happen if we address this complaint?

4. Generate three possible solutions

Challenge yourself and your team to generate three possible solutions to the complaint(s). This fosters more creative thinking and innovation, harnesses the collective wisdom and experience of your team, and gives them a stake in problem-solving rather than simply complaining.

Clarify they don't have to come up with "the" solution. Take their list and help whittle it down to three.

5. Prioritize action based on return on investment

You have limited resources and not all whining is worth addressing. Determine the return on investment (ROI) from addressing various complaints and use this to prioritize your actions and resources.

Apply the ROI formula: (The benefit of solving - the cost of solving)/cost of solving.

Here's a sample script:

After reflecting on some of the problems you've brought to me, a common thread I've noted is that you're dealing with brutal commutes and "death by meeting.

From asking more questions, I've gathered that the real problem is wasted time, which leads to lost productivity.

If we eliminate wasted time, employees will have more time for productive work AND more family time.

Three possible solutions that our team came up with include 1) working one day per week from home 2) flexible hours to avoid the heaviest traffic and 3) create a set of guidelines for efficient meetings that we all agree to follow.

The script above comes from a real-life team with which I worked. When they applied their brainstormed solutions, they noticed that their team morale was higher. They also received recognition at a company level for innovation and exemplary performance.

Whine to win. Simple. Now, give it a try.

Bonus tip: Empower your team to take action

Pick a team member who is ripe for more leadership and develop them to lead this initiative. Another win for the organization!