THE BLOG
10/16/2014 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

How to Complain to the Boss

"Isn't this ridiculous?" you ask your coworkers. "Monday morning is the busiest time of the entire week and that's the same time we have to train new employees." You've had it and now you're going to send your manager an email. So you write a note about how busy you are, reminding her about how she promised to see about getting you help, and noting how late you had to stay since you lost the entire morning training the new employee.

I'm betting the boss isn't going to be very responsive to your note or even sympathetic. She may be feeling a lot of the same pressures that you are. And every minute a manager needs to spend figuring out how to solve a problem for someone they manage, that's time they lose from doing their own work.

Even worse, you may get marked as someone who's "not a team player," "difficult to work with," "not a problem solver" or any of the other code phrases that get attached to people who complain a lot in business. And all you're trying to do is change something that would help make you and everyone else more productive.

Where did you go wrong?

Maybe it was all in the structure of your email. Instead of starting by suggesting possible solutions, you complained about the problem. It's also never advisable to put the focal point on you as an individual ("I'm working too hard"), as opposed to positioning the matter as a collective company challenge. What if the subject line was positive instead of negative? Imagine that you're the boss: think about the subject lines "Suggestion for Increasing Productivity" versus "Chronic Overtime and Short-Staffed." Which one do you think you'd be more receptive to?

This posting is based on a true story from one of my students several years ago. When he asked why new employees always started on Monday morning, the only rationale given was that it was the start of the work week (along with the usual favorite, "that's the way we've always done it.") There was no question about Monday mornings being the busiest, most stressful time at the office. Even the boss agreed on that one.

So when the communication was reframed so that the proposed solution came first "new employees start Tuesdays instead of Mondays," not only did it get noticed but it got passed along to HR, which not only shifted policies company-wide but also had new employees come in at 10:00 on their first day rather than 9:00 (it turned out the first hour they were often sitting in the reception area waiting for someone to get out of a meeting or off the phone.)

This sort of indirect structure is usually especially effective whenever you have something negative to communicate. Start with proposed solutions and alternatives so the recipient, especially your boss or client, knows you've already given it some thought and have some ideas to improve the situation and aren't just complaining about the status quo.

And keep focused on the particular issue at hand. A short, concise email is always more effective than a lengthy missive. Plus you're more likely to get issues addressed when you raise them individually rather than a laundry list of everything you want to see changed. Bringing up matters that weren't solved yet due of a lack of corporate will or resources are unlikely to help sway anyone's support on your current request.

We're all pretty much speed readers these days. None of us has much choice with the volume of information that's competing every minute for our attention. So by zeroing in on the matter at hand, and leading off your messaging with the solution rather than the problem, you're much more likely to find a receptive boss on the receiving end.