Is it alright to complain to my manager? How do I start the discussion?

Ken Ashdown, CCMS West/North (Esquimalt/Comox/BC AOR)

Civilians and military members of the Defence Team ask if it’s appropriate to complain to their supervisors/managers – and if so, how to do it so it doesn’t trigger an unintended reaction. Generally, if there’s an issue that negatively affects the working environment or how you do your job – whether it’s structural, informational, or about some aspect of your working relationships, then it’s probably appropriate to discuss it with them. The real question is how to raise the issue in a way that increases the likelihood of getting better results, especially if it involves the supervisor/manager personally. The following are tips and tricks to help you have a potentially difficult conversation (this is the 1st installment in a 3-part series):

Go to the source first. If the problem is between you and another team/unit member, take it up with them first. It’s tempting to “pass the monkey” to the supervisor/manager immediately, but this can create its own set of issues. One is that the person with whom you are having the challenging relationship may be annoyed that you didn’t talk to them first – and obviously that won’t help matters if your relationship has already suffered. There are many tools to help you do this, including conflict coaching (available from your local CCMS conflict management practitioner) and training (also available via CCMS, and other resources such as Health Promotion, DNDLearn/GCLearn, etc.). Another reason for speaking directly to the person involved is that the supervisor/manager may not necessarily have the skills to facilitate a discussion (again, help is available through CCMS training via the Conflict Resolution for Leaders course). And finally, conflict resolution skills that you may have already learned will get rusty if you don’t use them regularly. Any time is a good time to practice them.

Separate the person from the problem. Avoid objectifying the other person and seeing them as “the enemy;” it will put unhelpful distance between you. You can seldom change the other person anyway – although you can influence their behaviour. These are two very different things. The moment you see the other person as bad, wrong, or somehow defective, it will affect how you deal with them, and show up in ways that make finding a workable solution much more difficult. But if you focus your energies on the specific issue instead, things will generally go much more smoothly and productively.

Align your intentions and desired impact. No matter how much you may be hurting from the situation, avoid the temptation to make the other party feel your pain. It won’t help resolve the problem, and may only make it worse. Check your reasons for wanting to have the discussion or lodge the complaint in the first place; if it’s to try to prove your point, or punish the other party, or anything other than actually solve the problem, then it’s probably best to walk away and rethink your approach. If your aim is simply to vent and get it off your chest, be clear and up-front about it; at least they’ll thank you for your clarity. If the goal is to genuinely resolve the issue, then make sure the impact of your words and actions have the effect of making it easy for them to want to do it with you.

The Integrated Conflict and Complaint Management (ICCM) program integrates the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)’s previously separate existing harassment, grievance, human rights and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) conflict resolution systems. Full Operational Capability (FOC) was reached on July 20, 2018 with 16 Conflict and Complaint Management Services (CCMS) centres located across Canada which are now available to provide local guidance and support. Our expert personnel provide the Defence Team with knowledge and skills to prevent or address workplace conflicts early, locally, informally, and at the lowest appropriate level. For further information visit where you can find links to your local CCMS office; you can contact us nationally via our General Inquiries Positional Mailbox at or call Toll Free: 1-833-328-3351.

CCMS Centre Cold Lake can be reached at ++CCMS Cold Lake@VCDS DGICCM@Cold Lake (

Ken Ashdown is a Conflict Management Practitioner with the Conflict and Complaint Management Services (CCMS) Centre in Esquimalt. He is the co-author of several books on conflict resolution and group dynamics, and ran a successful private practice prior to joining the CCMS team.