How to Transform Complaints Into Positive Change

How to Transform Complaints Into Positive Change
How to Transform Complaints Into Positive Change

School Leadership//

February 26, 2023

Assuming a leadership position within your school may seem like a dream come true—you put in the work, obtained an advanced degree (or two), attended professional development workshops, and proved yourself to be a respected peer. As a leader, you want to effect meaningful and lasting change at your institution, and you should be able to presume you have the faculty’s support as you enact decisions.

But when your choices are met with resistance or it seems as though all you hear are complaints, how can you transform those negative responses into positive change?

Here are some ideas to get started.

Eliminate Your Assumptions

First developed by Chris Argyris in the 1970s, the Ladder of Inference is a model of the thinking process when making a decision or taking action. At the bottom are reality and facts, and from there we select data, evaluate, and draw conclusions.

This process often happens subconsciously, and we take the action that seems “right” to us. The problem is that, throughout the process, our assumptions, beliefs, and subjective interpretations become intertwined.

As humans, we often attach meaning to things we don’t know, and we attempt to make inferences to explain what we observe. It takes work to change your beliefs, so instead of believing everything you “think,” seek concrete examples to counteract your assumptions.

When met with rejection, instead of thinking of a worst case scenario, consider other perspectives. For example, a person’s failure to respond to an email in a manner you deem timely may cause you to assume a lack of interest in your communication. Or when you propose an idea that is met with a “not now but maybe later” response, you might conclude your suggestion was rejected for any number of reasons when, in reality, the timing was just less than ideal.

If you feel yourself moving toward assumptions, turn to one of today’s thought leaders Brené Brown, who commonly employs the phrase: “The story I’m telling myself about this is…”

Brown suggests that if you believe someone is upset about a decision you made, instead of responding with, “I could tell you were upset,” say “I assumed when you left you were upset by our conversation.” This reframes the conversation—eliminating the assumption and stating the observation. Clearly identifying what you observe eliminates the risk of heightening emotions because it is an objective notation vs. an emotionally charged assumption.


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Here are some other principles of effective ways to handle complaints you can use to transform complaints into positive change1.

  1. Listen objectively. Complaints must be dealt with in an equitable, objective, and unbiased manner. This ensures each complaint handling process is fair and reasonable—unreasonable complaints are not allowed to become a burden.
  2. Reframe complaints. People don’t complain about things they don’t care about. Identify the commitment beneath the complaint and what it reveals about the person’s values.
  3. Be accountable. Accept your role in the situation. This also presents the opportunity to analyze the culture you’re contributing to—is it one where people feel as though their concerns are being listened to and acted on? Inviting concerns is not the same as responding to them. Aim to be empathetic and not defensive when someone brings a complaint.
  4. Respond. Complaints must be acknowledged promptly, addressed according to urgency. Keep the complainant informed throughout the process.
  5. Review. Look to leaders you admire and how they collaborate with others to achieve their goals. Reflect on a time when an idea you presented to your supervisor was implemented and how that made you feel.
  6. Remedy. When someone comes to you with a problem, ask them for their perspective and see what happens. Allow them an opportunity to share their ideas.

What About Your Complaints?

While your day might consist of fielding complaints from faculty members, what happens when you have a concern? Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you work through your complaints:

  1. Identification: What is your complaint?
  2. Commitment: Why is this important to you?
  3. Counteractions: What are you doing that’s counter to your commitment?
  4. Fears: What fears might drive you to these interactions?
  5. Competing Commitment: What commitments are competing for your attention?
  6. Assumption: What does that say about how you assume people react and how the world works?

Here’s how this might look in practice.

  1. Identification: As a department chair, the teachers who report to me require too much of my input.
  2. Commitment: I want teachers to feel empowered to solve their own problems.
  3. Counteractions: I tend to withhold information and the tools they need to be effective. I want to feel needed.
  4. Fears: I’m afraid if I give them too much authority, they’ll make mistakes and make me look bad.
  5. Competing Commitment: I want to remain in control so things get done the way I want them to.
  6. Assumption: I assume I can do the job better than they can and, if they make mistakes, I’ll be held responsible as their leader.

You can use this process alongside a trusted peer. This will help you analyze the worst case scenario and begin to think about low-stakes resolutions. Remember, to lead on behalf of other people’s complaints requires you to begin by understanding and making changes yourself.


1. See “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation” by Robert Kegan for more specific information about using language for transformation.


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