It is a scenario with which Lisa Schaefer is unfortunately very familiar.

An employee approaches his or her manager with a concern, critique or criticism. The point often is valid and informed, but typically lacks a key component: A solution.

“If a manager says, ‘Well, what would you like me to do about it?’ Or, ‘What solution do you have?’ They say, ‘I just wanted you to know,’ instead of having a solution-based conversation,” said Schaefer, a corporate management training specialist and small-business owner in Dubuque.


A new study from University of Iowa researchers seems to confirm what many in the management realm have suspected for a long time. Squeaky-wheel employees who seem adept only at finding problems, rather than fixes, are frustrating and unhelpful.

While they might be sounding the alarm on potentially legitimate concerns, the information often is presented in a counterproductive manner.

Daniel Newton, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is a co-author of the new study.

He said employee feedback is a vital way that those in supervisory or executive positions can respond to and mitigate minor concerns before they become full-blown crises. However, it is far more helpful for workers to frame their criticisms in a constructive manner, Newton said.

“I think we can maybe improve how we package and sell these things with a solution, so you’re not just throwing the hot potato to your boss and saying, ‘This is your problem now,’” he said.

The researchers also included professors from the University of Oregon, Arizona State University and Iowa State University. They conducted a pair of studies.

The research suggested that strained relationships go both ways. Supervisors often feel worn out by employee complaints, but employees also were likely to view their supervisors negatively if they appeared drained by concerns.

However, if challenges are framed as issues that the supervisor is equipped to help solve, he or she is more likely to rise to the occasion.

“The problems are fatiguing, whereas if groups come to supervisors with new ideas, creative solutions, it still takes time, but those are things that help managers kind of feel like they’re meeting their goals,” Newton said.

Schaefer said employees and managers both have roles to play. While workers should offer constructive criticism rather than complaints, managers have to work hard to ensure their employees feel comfortable doing so.

“If the manager is always having to fix it, you’re not empowering employees to look at options,” she said.

Schaefer called it a “coaching supervision model.”

“What I try to do with supervisors is to help them ask the right questions,” she said. “‘Help me understand what’s going on? What is your role in the situation? What do you offer as a solution?’”

Since employees represent a company’s front line, while managers often focus on administrative duties, the workers often are best-suited at finding solutions to challenges.

It often is a “culture change,” Schaefer said, but it is one that can have long-term benefits, such as increased employee retention rates.

“You have buy-in from the staff,” she said. “‘Here is the issue. Here are some solutions that we think would work.’ That leads to innovation. Also, I think it leads to more buy-in at the employee level when they have a little more control over how decisions are made.”