What have queue-jumpers, late deliveries, bad traffic and slow Wi-Fi got in common? According to a range of studies, they represent four of the top five things that people complain about the most.
Complaining is so deeply embedded within the human condition that the average person is estimated to complain at least three times a day. Few people, if any, believe that they can get through a single day without complaining about something at least once. Most relevant to school leaders, topping the charts for the things that people complain about the most, is bad customer service.
“Bad customer service tops the charts of what people complain about the most.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s quip that “complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining” is only partly true. A complaint may lack an initial solution but if engaged with correctly can nevertheless be the catalyst for change, improvement and progress.
The psychology of complaining
It is perhaps helpful to have an understanding of the psychology behind complaining. Elizabeth Scott, notable blogger on stress management, positive psychology and relationships explains that for some people, complaining can simply be a way of regulating heightened emotions by giving vent to feelings and frustrations. Research also indicates that individual personality traits can play a role in the frequency that people complain and, in a pattern known well to some school leaders, “collective complaining” can be an important source of social bonding for some.
While there are certainly people, and parents, prone to rumination and to dwelling on past problems and disappointments, the number of people who live only to point out the negative parts of life is thankfully small.
“Complaints can be an important part of the process of improvement.”
We know well that our schools are ever-evolving human institutions. Rather than externalize the problem, we also know that our provision, our responses to requests for clarification, our handling of unexpected events – often beyond our immediate control – can occasionally leave us open to question, to dissatisfaction or to complaint.
However, based on data drawn from the processing of millions of complaints, if the method of lodging a complaint is transparent and secure, if the communication is effective, and if meaningful relationships exist between schools and parents, complaints can be an important part of the process of improvement.
Considering how very sensitive and often excessively time-consuming the handling of school complaints can be, it is curious that relatively little thought or time goes into discussing the matter with newly appointed staff, middle and senior leaders.
The reputational damage from a mishandled complaint can be extreme, a factor which more than warrants time spent communicating to staff the school’s processes and policies and how it defines or categorises complaints. Colleagues need to be clear on the leadership’s expectations of how staff at all levels should handle complaints and the regulatory requirement to do so in a consistent and lawful way.
“The reputational damage from a mishandled complaint can be extreme.”
All schools experience complaints every year, without exception. They may come from students, staff or parents – they may be about students, staff or indeed parents. They come in all forms: from the informal, verbal and fleeting; to the formal, tightly-written protests directed at the top level of an institution.
Some complaints are long anticipated; others come wholly out-of-the-blue. Perhaps the most difficult can be the easily overlooked often quietly posed concern, occasionally wished away by a busy member of staff, only to return a little later and rather higher up the chain of command. A deeply entrenched problem can be compounded by overlooking.
While all schools have robust complaints policies, some may be crafted more to serve the school’s ends than to follow the impartial principles of fairness and natural justice. A genuine desire to engage with complainants and to see any complaint as having the capacity to drive improvement is reflected in the best policies.
Empathy and active listening
All sorts of emotions run through us when faced with a complaint about matters that we feel strongly or personally attached to. That said, it is almost impossible to put a price on the role that empathy has to play at the outset. All parents want to be listened to and all want their concerns to be acknowledged rather than dismissed. Being non-defensive without implying fault, especially prior to any investigation, is a powerful antidote to an emotional downward spiral.
“All parents want to be listened to and have their concerns acknowledged.”
Empathetic expressions such as “I can see how you feel” or “I can see how it appears to you” can have a powerful effect early in the process of complaint handling and can often entirely redirect a complaint onto a more positive track. Such expressions demonstrate that an institution is ready and willing to see all sides of a situation.
Active listening, expressing gratitude that matters have been brought to light, and respectful notetaking are all prerequisites of effective complaint handling. Relationships invariably need to be maintained and developed well beyond the confines of a single complaint, and remaining calm in an often emotionally charged circumstance is invaluable.
How well did we do?
While it might feel like the last thing a school wants to do – picking at a thinly-healed scar by re-engaging with the architects of a time-consuming and potentially negative episode in a school year – but little communicates a willingness to listen and improve more than a request for feedback after the school has handled a complex complaint.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of School Management Plus magazine, out now.