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Henny Penny Gets It Right

Mel O'Sullivan - August 4, 2020

Why it can be good practice to make space for whingers in your team.

I want to tell you about one of the most valuable lessons in leadership I ever learned.

Twenty something years ago I (a farm girl from the boondocks at 24 years of age) had earned the privilege of being responsible for the care and welfare of 55 soldiers and Army gear & equipment valued in the millions.

I was (said the voice in my head) out of my depth and making a complete mess of everything. My soldiers were whingeing to me about everything - all day - every day (and sometimes at night). Henny Penny always knew the sky was falling right?

One day I found my Boss (an insanely busy man) sitting beside me on a crate of truck parts "chewing the fat about nothing much at all". I was terrified he was going to call me out and tell me straight up I was useless.

The conversation went like this:

Him: "You look worried all the time. What's going on?"

Me: "Sir, my soldiers are really unhappy. They are complaining to me about everything. I don't know what to do."

He said:

"Keep listening to them. Don't stop them. Soldiers complain - it's what they do."

And then the real bell ringer!

"You only have a problem if they stop talking to you."

Workers who are comfortable to "whinge" to management know that they have a safe space to communicate ideas for improvement. Carefully and well led, a worker who is communicating problems up the leadership structure can be a motivated driver for improvement and change. "Whingers" sometimes just need to be given the opportunity and (most important) sufficient guidance. Of course some people really are just whingers.

The difficulty lies in turning the negative "whinge" into a positive driver for change and improvement. You as the team leader have the responsibility to decide which "whinges" require action and which ones can be filed for later reference.

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