advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My employees complain about the dumbest things

I’m a regional manager for a nationwide shipping company. We’re a big, complicated business with a lot of moving parts. Thousands of employees and contractors, dozens of locations, tight schedules, and massive inventory to move, track and manage.

       At the facility I work out of, I’m sort of the “top boss.” I have more authority than anybody else, but not everyone there reports to me directly. This means I’m the one people come to with their problems and complaints. And boy, do they ever complain. The fridge in the break room isn’t big enough; their coworker talks too much and it’s driving them nuts; the bathrooms are not as tidy as they could be and need to be stocked more frequently, etc. While I get that this stuff is annoying, it strikes me as small potatoes compared to the thousand other, more important things I have to deal with every day. I guess it’s all part of the job, but it’s seem like they’re always b****ing-and-moaning, about sometimes about the stupidest things. Won’t they ever be satisfied..?  – Name withheld

I imagine Abraham Maslow would have some advice/perspective for you, were he still alive to offer it. (Maslow passed away in 1970.)

He’s the psychologist who, in the 1940s, formulated a theory of motivation that is now one of the most widely recognized (if not necessarily universally agreed upon[1]) theories in all of human psychology.[2]

Maslow posited that there’s a hierarchy of “needs” which all human beings experience, and which motivates their behavior. They range from the most basic—the need for food, safety, and shelter, for example—to such “higher level” wants and desires as that for love, achievement, and “self-actualization.” In its most simplistic interpretation, the fulfillment of one need leads to a desire for the next, and so on up the hierarchy.

More relevant to your situation is the recognition that the satisfaction experienced in fulfilling any one need is only temporary. Then the human animal’s natural desire to meet the next becomes their primary motivation, thus establishing a cycle which presumably continues until some highly idealized state of complete and total satisfaction is achieved. And that, of course, is ultimately impossible. This leads Maslow to conclude:

“[E]verything…implies very strongly that people will always complain.”[3]

So if it seems like your employees are always dissatisfied with something, Maslow might gently advise you to get used to it. In fact, they are – and probably always will be.

Of perhaps more concern is the nature of the grievances you’re hearing.

As Maslow explains:

“…the level of complaints—which is to say, the level one needs and craves and wishes for—can be an indicator of the motivational level at which the person is living; and if the level of complaints is studied in the industrial situation, it can be used also as a measure of the level of health of the whole organization…”[4]

In other words, don’t be fooled by the apparent triviality of the gripes you’re getting. It may be tempting to interpret this as an indication that your employee’s larger concerns—such as those regarding organizational strategy, direction, profitability—have all been addressed to their satisfaction. But in fact, just the opposite. Only once their more basic needs have been met will these broader organizational issues occupy their minds, and in turn become the subject of their opinions and/or criticisms. Indeed, it is precisely because they seem so trivial that you should be worried.

That, I imagine, is what Dr. Maslow might say to you.

For my part, I would only add that any time you get a complaint about anything from anyone—be it an employee, customer, or whoever—keep in mind this is feedback.

And feedback is, quite literally, the lifeblood of any organization.

It is the only way for you and the rest of management to access the information and insights it needs to insure your company’s survival in what is no doubt a brutally competitive marketplace.

So go ahead, find a friend, partner, or trusted colleague (or sympathetic advice columnist) to whom you might privately lament the fact that your employees always seem to be whining. But no matter how insignificant these complaints seem to you (although the bathrooms do sound kind of gross), to those who care enough about your organization to voice them, there really is only one appropriate response:

Get down on your knees, and thank them.



[1] One criticism of Maslow’s theory is the lack of empirical data supporting it. Sommers, Christina Hoff and Sally Satel. One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-reliance. 2006 (MacMillan).

[2] Maslow, A. H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review (1943), 50, p. 370-396.

[3] Maslow, Abraham. Maslow on Management. 1998 (John Wiley & Sons), p. 268.

[4] Ibid., p. 267.


  1. Tim Eiler

    Although the complaints seem to be about trivial topics, it seems to me that such might mean that the employees’ basic needs are being met. That would be a good thing, IMHO.

  2. Bill

    Great column and especially last paragraph! The only thing I would add is it’s a testament to what kind of a person this manager is that so many people feel comfortable confiding in / venting with her or him.

    Sure, it can be tiresome but there might be ways to channel that energy, directly involving the complainers, into implementing solutions.


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