Annual Airing of the Grievances

by Jessi Burg

In every business, no matter what the industry or size, you’re guaranteed to have some amount of negative feedback. It might come from your staff, or from an online review. The issue might be a one-off problem, or it could be a consistent internal struggle. Sometimes you know it’s coming, and other times you’re completely blindsided. 

The worst way to receive negative feedback, though, is to not get any feedback at all. When you don’t know what’s going on in your business, it makes it hard to plan for the future. Even when your business is going well, there’s usually something that can be improved. If you’re thinking about growing your business, then it’s vital to understand your weak points. These are the areas most likely to cause stress as your business expands. 

As a business owner, one of the hardest things to do is to be objective about your business. We’ve poured our time and energy, our heart and soul (not to mention our savings!), into our businesses. And still, at the end of the day, it’s never perfect. There are always things we could have done better. But it’s one thing for us to be aware – it’s something else entirely when you hear it from a client or a staff person. 

However, one of the best things about owning your own business is that most of the time, you get to decide when and how to receive that feedback. If a client has an issue, you can wait a few minutes and take a deep breath before calling them back to find a solution. 

If your staff wants to check in when you’re in the middle of something, you can ask if it can wait til a little later (as long as you actually follow up later – if you don’t, they’re unlikely to come to you the next time). With careful planning, you can even set up a time where everyone in your business can tell you their least favorite part about working for you – while you take notes. 

At Outgrow Your Garage, we call this the annual “Airing of the Grievances”. It’s an important tradition where we talk about what’s working in the business and what isn’t. Afterward, we have a priority list of systemic and operational needs to help us scale across all departments. Everyone is invested in creating solutions when they help identify the problems. It’s also easy to see progress being made, because the list is public knowledge. 

The Airing of the Grievances is specifically designed to solve operational problems. It answers questions like “How can our communications process improve?” and “What additional supplies would make product development easier?”. It doesn’t solve interpersonal issues, which are much more varied and often don’t have tidy solutions. 

So how does it work? The general idea is that you gather everyone from your company in one room, and you list everything that needs to improve. Some of these things will be actionable items, some will be wishes for the future, and some will be things that aren’t feasible to fix at all. It doesn’t matter what the suggestions are, write everything down in a place everyone can see. Here at Outgrow Your Garage, we’ve used tools such as: 

  • Whiteboard software (like Trello) as a screen share during a remote meeting 
  • Google Docs for a remote meeting so that everyone can work together
  • A whiteboard on a wall in the “office” (which was actually my basement)

There are three rules:

  1. Every suggestion goes on the list.
  2. Don’t make it personal. 
  3. The highest ranking person in the room facilitates, takes notes, and contributes nothing. 

It’s important for every suggestion to go on the list for a few reasons. The most important is that you’re getting a complete picture of your company. It’s not “evaluation of which grievances are most pressing” – you want to know everything that’s happening. This also creates a space for a future wishlist – as you grow, where do your employees want to see the company expand? What would make them want to stay with you for many years? 

Don’t make it personal means that all grievances have to be about a systemic issue. For example, I’m known for keeping information in my head and forgetting to write it down where other people can find it. The company-wide issue is that there isn’t a clear place to go for information, so even if I do write something down, no one knows where to look. Once we created a system for tracking projects, then I was able to work on my own methods of actually using it. (This is a real example, and my Executive Assistant spends a lot of time reminding me that we have processes in place waiting to be utilized). 

The highest ranking person facilitates the meeting and doesn’t contribute, because it’s important to know what the staff actually thinks. If there’s a chance that their suggestion will be discarded or their boss will argue with them about it, they’re less likely to participate. By taking notes yourself, it also frees everyone else up to participate. It’s hard to come up with ideas while writing down other people’s thoughts, so this gives you something to focus on while your staff talks about the company. 

Airing of the Grievances can be a great tool for a lot of businesses, but in order for it to work, you need to have a culture that encourages open communication. Building that culture can be hard, especially since it requires that you lead by example and hire people who are willing to think thoughtfully and listen to others. Growing your company means expanding your leadership skills, which in turn lets you create the company culture that you desire. 


Want more from Outgrow Your Garage?

-Check out our Leadership and Management Recommended Reading List for books on developing your own leadership skills. Many of these are also available at your local library. 

-If you like podcasts, we’ve been loving Karen Bartlett’s “Now and Center“, as well as “Flow Working The Entrepreneur’s Podcast” by Megan Danae Anderson.

-If you’re looking for business support, stop by our co-working sessions! Twice a week, we virtually bring business owners together from a variety of industries to work on their businesses, share insights, and troubleshoot issues.

-Check out our full online business course catalog for all of your operational needs! Select a course based on what area of your business you need help in, and pay a one time fee for unlimited access to its content, activities, and resources.

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