Project Practitioners > Close the Complaint Department

Close the Complaint Department

By Michael Aucoin

Do you have a Complaint Department within your team? By that term, I do not mean the office that receives complaints from customers. Rather, this “department” is how individual team members air grievances about others on the team. For example, Lee has done or said something that Sam doesn’t like. Sam goes to Pat, an uninvolved third party, to complain about Lee. Such third party complaining is detrimental to a team for three reasons.

  • It does not solve the underlying conflict, and creates an environment that prolongs the conflict.
  • It may create factions within a team, meaning that the team is no longer a team.
  • If it continues, third party complaining becomes habitual and difficult to stop.

I’ve recently been reading Dave Ramsey’s book, Entreleadership. In his company, Ramsey feels so strongly about such third party complaining that he treats it with severe consequences. The first instance will lead to a warning for Sam. Upon the second occurrence, Sam will be fired from the company!

While you may not want to take such drastic action, I nevertheless encourage you to close the Complaint Department – to create a culture in your team where third party complaints are not tolerated. The key person in this culture change is Pat. If Pat cuts off the complaining, she closes the Complaint Department.

I like to consider human interactions as a sort of dance where partners act and react. Said another way, it takes two to tango. Sam can only complain if Pat serves as a willing audience.

It is worthwhile to consider why Pat might be a willing audience. One reason is that she may simply think she is being nice by listening. Alternatively, Pat may enjoy  being seen as a “go to” person for secrets. Accordingly, Pat may feel a sense of power with such a position.

I performed a facilitation with a dysfunctional team that had such a dynamic of third party complaints. We addressed the issue with the whole team to ensure that everyone knew such behavior was toxic and needed to end. The key shift was for recipients of such complaints to change their behavior and cut off unhealthy complaining.

I’m willing to grant Sam a one-time pass on a brief complaint, because there is value in sometimes blowing off steam. Likewise, Pat can help if Sam says to her, “I have a conflict with Lee that I want to solve, and I’d like some ideas on how to go about it.” On the other hand, when Sam expounds on a grievance or repeats it, that’s when Pat needs to take action. The best approach is for Pat to re-direct Sam to address the matter directly with Lee. Thereafter, it is up to Pat to be assertive and to not re-engage in hearing the complaint. Such a position forces Sam to either resolve the issue with Lee or otherwise move on.

What has been your experience with the Complaint Department in your team? Every team has conflicts. Healthy teams allow conflicts to be expressed and resolved in an appropriate manner. It is an unhealthy sign when team members express frustrations to uninvolved third parties. Resolve to close your Complaint Department as one way to ensure that destructive conflict does not occur on your team.


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at

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