(MoneyWatch) Every time I'm on the road and stop for lunch, I sit alone and listen. Invariably what I hear is people complaining: About their company, their boss, their co-workers. The last few weeks I've been in California, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, in high tech and low tech but the background rumble is always the same. If you're running a team or an organization, you're probably aware (I hope you're aware) that this backchat is always going on. But what can you do about it?
1. Recognize that some grousing is inevitable.
When I first started working in broadcasting, I was alarmed by how low morale was. Ten years later, I looked back on that era as a golden age. Smart people always complain because they're looking for better ways to work. You want them to do this.
2. Get substance to the surface.
A lot of grumbling is over things that don't matter: Parking and food are perennial topics. What you want to listen for is the discontent that matters. Complaints about products or customers count. Impatience with systems and processes suggest room for improvement. But don't wait for the complaints to be so loud that they reach you. Create forums, discussions and meetings where people must bring their criticisms to the table. Reward the best critique. Celebrate the devil's advocate. Turn the tables and make it clear that smart criticism is what's wanted.
3. Always ask for a solution.
In my companies, the rule always was that you couldn't complain without at least one suggestion for improvement. It's often unfair to require the diagnostician for the cure but you'll keep everyone more productive and creative if they're as focused on solutions as they are on problems.
4. Float your own concerns.
Whenever I overheard complaints that I thought mattered, I would try to find safe ways to get them discussed. Is anyone else worried the product's too slow/expensive/complicated? Is there any easier way to do this? It's a leader's job to create the environment in which these concerns can be safely articulated.
The easiest thing in the world is to tune out the grumbling. Sure, a lot of it is narcissistic, pessimistic and futile. But you dare not miss the stuff that counts. If you've hired smart people, you want to know what's on their minds.