Human beings complain—a lot. We complain about traffic, the weather, politics, coworkers, the boss, family members, local sports teams, the news, and just about every other facet of our lives. Complaints are part of every workplace.
Why We Complain
Once, during a workshop, I asked participants why they think we complain so much. They had plenty of justifications for complaining. Here are the main themes.
- It provides a means of connecting with others who share our complaints.
- It allows us to release stress by letting off a little steam about things and people that irritate us.
- It makes others aware of problems so that they can address them.
It was interesting to me that based on their justifications, most saw complaining as a beneficial activity.
The Problems Complaints Create
While what they said may be true, many of us fail to take into account the costs associated with complaining.
- It focuses our attention on the negative, and that leads to bad behaviors.
- It creates and reinforces beliefs about the world that may not be true.
- It pulls others down who may have been happy and productive prior to hearing the complaint.
- It makes others look at the complainer as a problem person.
Make Complaints Beneficial
So what’s an effective leader to do about this? Banning complaining and punishing people who do won’t lead to a good outcome. People will still complain. They’ll just be more careful about who’s within earshot when they do.
Plus, the justification that complaints raise awareness about a problem is true. Complaining helps you know when there’s an issue. Remaining in the dark isn’t helpful.
Maybe the solution is to reframe complaining as problem-solving. Of course this transformation will require more than just a new term. You’ll need to enhance the activity to include the actual problem-solving.
Here’s how it could work:
- Jeff pops off his complaint.
- You acknowledge the complaint and learn more about why Jeff thinks there’s a problem.
- You suggest resolving the problem and ask Jeff if he wants to be part of that process.
- Jeff and whoever he needs to help, get together and work through the full-problem solving process to develop a solution.
Notice I didn’t say that Jeff has to have the solution. He may not know what to do about the problem. That’s why he’s complaining in the first place.
Stay away from the blanket rule that your employees can’t discuss a problem unless they have a solution. That’s an all to common practice that stifles growth.
Now if Jeff doesn’t want to solve the problem or participate in the solution, that should raise a new concern in you about Jeff.
If that’s the case, you may want to have a coaching conversation with him about why he’s raising concerns about something he has no intention of trying to fix. You might also make him aware of the costs associated with his behavior.
Jeff would benefit from understanding that complaining may feel like the right thing to do, but it often creates a very poor result.