The Shift To Customer Focus

Understanding what complaints really mean is an important aspect of leadership

by Hank Lindborg

Calvin and Hobbes, careening toward a cliff in a small wagon, have an illuminating conversation on problems.

Calvin advocates ignorance is bliss, asserting that seeing problems creates an obligation to fix them. "Fixing problems always seems to require personal change, and change means doing things that aren't fun! I say phooey to that!"

Naturally, the wagon goes off the cliff, leaving Hobbes hoping for less bliss and Calvin trying hard "not to learn anything from this." Sounds like a quality parable. The profession is about fixing things and personal change.

Quality's Values Shift

When quality moved to a strategic focus on the customer, it made an important values shift. People could no longer be blissfully engineered out of technical processes of improvement. Quality now involved creating satisfaction, a relationship based on integrity--promises kept.

The "downside" to this, of course, is the duty to respond to dissatisfied, sometimes angry customers. Not much fun.

Today, the quality profession is distinguished by the keen interest it takes in complaints. Quality requires complaints not merely be tolerated but be actively encouraged--embraced for their value in getting at the roots of problems in production and service. An organization's excellence is measured by how well it hears the voice of the customer, even when the message isn't positive.

What This Means for Careers

So what does this have to do with the advancement of the quality professional's career and personal change? Simply put, understanding complaint is an important, though often neglected, aspect of leadership.

Think about Ernest Shackleton, whose remarkable story of survival in the Antarctic has been chronicled in several good films and management books. Faced with the challenge of bringing his men back alive under the most adverse conditions, he never permitted himself to be heard complaining. At the same time he listened carefully for seeds of discontent around him.

Shackleton's response was to hear what needs underlay the grumbling--needs, he found, for reassurance, support, structure, even a contract. He acted not to counter the complaints but to meet the needs. This is what the most effective leaders do. It isn't easy.

Ask your co-workers to think about the last story they told about work to someone outside. Was it positive or negative? You'll learn it was negative most often.

Think about your own stories. For some of us, complaint is the verbal equivalent of junk food: readily available, consumed without thought, temporarily satisfying but toxic over the long term. We may view the complaint as we do junk food: It's all around us. There's not much we can do about it. Why not ignore it? And as Calvin says, "Change means doing things that aren't fun."

Complaint vs. Commitment

The best response I've found comes from Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan.1 He contrasts the language of complaint with the language of commitment. The first is easy, tells others what we can't stand and expresses what's wrong. But it leaves us feeling whiny and frustrated, asks others to join us in our feelings and does little but let off steam.

Commitment, on the other hand, is less common, expresses what we stand for, gives energy and affirms purpose. More importantly for leadership, this stance interprets complaint as a signal of what someone cares about. This isn't a kind of naive optimism. It recognizes real problems exist.

Kegan suggests we need the opportunity to explore where our real commitments lie--what our complaints really mean. "People," he says, "only complain about something because they are committed to the value or importance of something else."

He finds most leaders aren't anxious to engage the language of complaint, or when they do, see it as "a tumor that must be shrunk." This is a mistake. If we want to enlist others to our vision, we have to understand where their commitments lie. "In avoiding the energy and language of complaint, ... we are losing the chance to bring the vitalizing energy of commitment into the workplace."

Who better to provide the leadership of commitment than quality professionals, who in their daily work engage complaint to improve products and services? What's needed is to extend our scope beyond formal systems, to listen to what goes on in the frontline and in teams. What important values are being expressed negatively? How could their positive expression be connected to our vision of what we have to do together for better service?

This isn't easy listening, but applying what we know about complaint from quality's body of knowledge to our everyday encounters can transform relationships, help others make clear what they really want and open new paths to leadership.


1. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Wiley, 2002, p. 30.

HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ's Education Division and currently serves on the Education and Training Board.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board on www.asq.org, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

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