When I first entered the business world as a member of a Human Resources staff I remember being taught, when an employee came into my office and began to complain about their manager, to immediately ask, "Have you had this conversation with your manager?" If the employee's response was, "No" my role was to coach them on how to have conversation if that was an appropriate next step or to facilitate a constructive 3 way conversation.
Sometimes the employee was reluctant to do either. At times, they offered legitimate reasons but more often the explanations as to why they couldn't possibly have the discussion with their manager involved a combination of fear, anxiety, defense mechanisms or a recognition that they would have to provide specifics not just vague complaints. At that point I coached them on 2 things: 1) simply by virtue of having the title of Supervisor or Manager it is difficult to get candid feedback, often when you need it the most; 2) we owe each other supportive and honest feedback. I also explained that part of my role was to help the manager be willing to listen to and accept the feedback, see it as constructive and consider how it could help him/her be even more effective.
Lastly, I would often ask 2 final questions of the employee: 1) if you don't provide the feedback are you prepared to share the responsibility for nothing changing? and 2) if the roles were reversed would you want people to help you learn and grow by receiving candid feedback?
Unfortunately, there are some in any organization who are unwilling to have those necessary conversations but somehow find themselves able to share their complaints with others. That approach serves no one.
Let me share two actual examples from my HR and consulting career. In one case, a member of a leadership team in their position for less than six months and reporting to a CEO who has been with the company for just over a year decided to complain directly to a member of the Board of Directors rather than provide candid feedback to the CEO who he reports to. Sadly, the board member entertained the discussion rather than asking the person if they had spoken to the CEO yet. Sadly, the complaint was put in terms that painted the CEO as overly demanding, inflexible and taking the joy out of work. The facts were the individual had been given performance feedback for 3 consecutive months that they were not meeting goals and was offered help. In addition, HR has talked with that person about chronic absenteeism and lack of preparedness for management meetings. Think about the needless bad feeling and misrepresentation of the facts.
In the second situation a mid-level manager was placed on a behavioral improvement plan driven by what the HR Manager described as a steady stream of colleagues coming in to complain about the person. To its credit the company implemented a 360 survey process to gather more data to coach the individual. Due to the strong themes of negative comments about the person's behaviors the company asked me to have follow up conversations with the participants in the 360 survey process. One of my first questions was, "Have you ever provided feedback to him about the behaviors that concern you?" Only one person said, "Yes". Ironically and somewhat amusingly, when I asked that one person to share with me an example of the feedback he had offered and if had made a difference in their relationship he said, "Yes. I told him that if he would stop being a narrow minded jerk people would be more willing to help him." Not the most diplomatic feedback but what actually happened was the person with the behavioral problem responded by saying, "You sure made it clear what the problem is. Now I at least know where to start. I guess I also know why so many people either don't talk to me in meetings or don't respond to my requests for help." From that point out they built a much more open and productive relationship.
One person made a difference for him. Several others could have but did not. Can they continue to complain? Should they? Or do they continue to be part of the problem?