Building Insight: Managing Complaints of Discrimination or Harassment

At some point, as a leader or manager you will have to provide performance feedback, handle complaints and manage grievances. Mastering the ability to give difficult feedback and keep dialog constructive and open is essential.

When asked to train managers in complaint handling recently, I prepared by exploring what helps individuals to engage with feedback and complaints. I also reflected on a powerful personal experience, that helped me understand just how difficult staying open to feedback can be.

A few years ago, a friend and colleague said she found my behaviour racist.  I was taken aback.  At first I denied her accusation, fiercely defending myself.  I was hurt and felt misunderstood. Though I knew that for our friendship to survive I needed to open up and learn from her feedback, I struggled to come to terms with her interpretation.

I knew for sure that the experience was as challenging for her as it was for me.  But I wasn’t able to respond to my colleague in a way that was meaningful or useful.  Instead I imploded.  I’ve since seen clients do the same.  They collapse and have no energy left to focus on the other person.

As a complaint handler you need to work very hard to manage this situation.  Sometimes the distress and pressure that respondents (those accused of inappropriate behaviour) feel can leave them feeling like a victim of the complaint management process and the complainant’s feedback. We often draw on our training as conflict management coaches to manage this challenging terrain.

Thankfully my colleague hung in with me.  She persisted in explaining the dynamics of subtle racism and the pain it causes.  Nonetheless, I struggled.  For a long time any sense of progress eluded me.  Eventually – perhaps because I felt sorry for myself or because I couldn’t find a way through – I became interested in the struggle itself. Why was it so hard to accept what my colleague said?  Why was I having such a big reaction to her feedback?  My curiosity helped me to hang in, and eventually engage with her message.

Reflecting on this experience I’ve since developed the Four ‘I’s Model to deal with some of the challenges associated with giving difficult feedback.  Managers seem to find this model both practical and useful.


One of the key premises of this model is that real change comes about when we achieve insight – when we understand a problem or issue from multiple perspectives. This may mean seeing the issue from our own and other people’s points of view, including the position of the aggrieved party, our manager and the organisation.


One of my biggest obstacles to taking on board my colleague’s feedback was the challenge to my own identity – the way I saw myself.  As a seventeen year-old I’d left Australia for South Africa, motivated by a deep concern about the recent Soweto riots.   Today I think of myself as someone committed to raising awareness of the ‘isms’, including my own role in them.  When my friend used the word racist, it stung.  It was an anathema.  How could I be a racist?  It didn’t match what I stood for.

Most people want to be seen as competent professionals and decent human beings. Complaints and grievances can cut straight to the core of a person’s identity.  They threaten more than loss of face or professional repercussions.  Our very self-concept can be at stake.

The extent of my reaction revealed not only the strength of my judgements about racism, but expectations I held of myself.  I was initially harder on myself than I’d be on someone else in those circumstances.  I had to learn to hear the word racism without automatically hearing that I was a ‘bad person’.  That was quite a challenge!

If you manage or work with staff accused of offensive behaviours, you may need to help them to put the criticism or complaint in perspective.

‘Separating the behaviour from the person’  is a rule that applies to ourselves, as well as others .


A person’s intent often differs from the ultimate impact of their behaviours.   When I was seen and understood for my original intent it became easier to acknowledge the impact of my behaviour on my colleague.

Enabling an individual to explain the intent of their behaviour is critical not only to the principles of natural justice but to employees’ feeling fairly treated and understood in a complaint process.  It limits the likelihood of escalation and revenge, which are always serious concerns.


We’re often unaware of the impact of our behaviour.  It’s critical therefore that we’re open to feedback about any gaps between our intent and impact.

However feedback, especially when it’s delivered via a formal grievance, may come as a shock. The complaint manager’s attitude and use of language can be important in helping respondents remain open to feedback.  Tracking respondent’s reactions and pacing feedback reduce the likelihood of a negative reaction. Complaint handlers must find a balance between supporting, encouraging and challenging respondents to understand and acknowledge the impact of their behaviours on others.

Using powerful questions to elicit insights often proves more effective than simply informing employees of the impacts of their behaviour

Here are a few of my favourite questions, (I’ve used the name Mary to indicate the complainant:)

  • What is your initial response to this feedback?
  • How do you see yourself as a manager /co-worker?  How do you want to be seen by (Mary)?
  • What was your intention when ………. ?
  • How do you think (Mary) might have experienced that?
  • What might you do to address the situation?
  • How might Mary respond to that?

To learn more about the art of powerful questions join our conflict coaching programs

It’s not only individuals, but organisations that need to gain insight on occasions.  How in your experience do organisations develop insight?

1. ) Fisher R, Patton B. & Ury W, 2003,  Getting to Yes:  The Secret to Successful Negotiation,  Arrow Books, New York

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