A Daily Dispatch from the Front Lines of Leadership.


When a Team Member Carries Someone Else’s Complaint

The subtext of any conversation refers to the underlying meanings and motivations people use to influence. By looking past the literal message, leaders can discern the agendas at play in any conversation. Through an examination of the subtext, leaders understand more accurately what is really being said. 

A case in point is when a team member discloses the complaints and dissatisfaction of others. 

When a team member reveals what is being said, especially in a one-sided way, the subtext is that is how they themselves feel. Complaints and dissatisfaction expressed for others is the hidden way team members express their own issues and concerns. They do this to avoid being judged as negative or as a complainer. Like a ventriloquist who throws their voice, they prefer to register their own dissatisfaction by suggesting it is what others feel and believe. 

Leaders who see through this disguise come to understand the person carrying the message is deeply troubled by an issue but feels compelled to use others as the source to avoid any attribution of their own dissatisfaction. The truth is, the rest of the team is likely to feel less strongly than the member who claims to speak for the group. Knowing this, leaders can avoid overreacting to what the team is said to be experiencing. The leader can concentrate efforts on the team member who is strongly expressing that things are amiss. 

This kind of awareness is also key for those whose job it is to take the pulse of an organization. Such as an HR role. The position requires them to gauge an objective view of what is being said inside the organization. If, however, the person in the HR position begins to paint a one-sided negative picture, a leader should presume they are speaking more for themselves than the overall members of the team. Objectivity is always in short-supply when self-interests take precedence, no matter the source. 

Missing the subtext of what is really being said can send leaders on a wild goose chase, without good result.  The best leaders attempt to understand the underlying meanings and ulterior motives in play when people craft messages to influence them. Not everything is what it seems when a team member complains for others. Funny how that works. Don’t be fooled.

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