When I interviewed for the last VP position I had before I went out on my own with Unleashed Consulting, I was thrilled when I met my team.
This was a team of talented, delightful people (a team of six) who enjoyed working together; who laughed and supported each other whenever they got together. And I was feeling excited to work with them.
The thing was, as soon as I started, I realized when we were in meetings together, they connected, comforted, and coalesced with conversations all centering around … complaint.
They complained about everything …
- How much they resented senior leadership
- How little they were paid
- How they had to work too many hours
- Inflexible schedules
- No one understands us
- Heavy workloads
- Aggressive coworkers
- Nothing changes
- Forced fun
- No technical support
- No management
- Never enough budget no matter what we do
The list went on and on.
And the worst part was, after a short while of trying to ignore and dismiss the complaining, I found myself contributing to it! I very much wanted to connect with my team on a personal level – and they wanted me to hear their unhappy voices. What else could I do? I joined in … “Yeah, I know what you mean, I’m frustrated too – I hear you. I’m with you. We suffer together – as a team! We’re right. They’re wrong.”
Well, years later, after working with leaders and managers from across sectors and industries, I’ve realized the real pandemic in organizations isn’t Covid… it’s complaint.
We easily spread complaint like any virus. Unlike Covid, however, we don’t necessarily protect ourselves from the virus. Instead, we do something very interesting – we form communities around it. We nurture the communities of complaint. We default to them. And after a while – because we are getting all the benefits of “community” from them – we depend on them. Often we look forward to them.
Why do we complain?
- “Complaining allows us to achieve desired outcomes such as sympathy and attention. The truth is, everybody does it.” (Prof. Robin Kowalski, Clemson University)
- Complaining provides catharsis or emotional release, something especially true for those who have experienced trauma in their lives.
- Complaining fills the void of discomfort and awkwardness.
- Complaining feels (really) good, requires minimal risk, and it’s easy.
Complaint is seductive. It lulls us into an interpersonal connection that has many of the qualities of friendship and the bonds of camaraderie. We often talk of the “culture of complaint” but the “community of complaint” is different. Culture implies, “that’s just how we do things around here”. Community, on the other hand, recognizes the allure of connection around complaint – the sense of power and connectedness we have and the sense of we share something very special: all of us can be of the same mind, and on the same page, having the same common enemy. The “esprit de corps” of “we’re all in this together” is the virus that we cannot resist. We’re all pointed in the same direction … let’s pile on. The more complaining we do, the tighter we become … the more we understand each other.
Most complaints are energy that goes nowhere. Complaints are almost always the seeds that fall on fallow ground. When we complain, we are satisfied with the act itself. The reward of complaining is self-righteousness – it is power. Complaining to another person – when they hear, respond, and agree with you – is one of the most satisfying interpersonal engagements we can have. It’s no wonder we love to complain!
The research tells us:
- The average person complains once every minute during any conversation. Moreover, most people complain at least 15-20 times a day.
- Most employees spend 10 or more hours per month complaining — or listening to others complain — about their bosses or upper management.
- Even more amazing, almost a third spend 20 hours or more per month doing so.
- Lastly, we know that as uncertainty increases, so does complaint.
Additional research shows that complaining is legitimately bad for our mental health. In effect, neurons that fire together, wire together. Complaining rewires our brains for negativity, especially at a neurological level. It impacts our brains so much that both negative thinking and speech become an integral part of us. Complaining reinforces negative neural pathways and makes us see more problems than solutions. It reinforces our natural “negative bias” – we start seeking negativity.
But thankfully, we know some other things about “community”.
At its core, any community is coming together around a shared perception of reality based on shared, typically deeply held, personal values. Communities are powerful because the shared sense of purpose and identity is rooted in aligned values – whether they are political, social, professional, personal, or economic. The air is filled with empathy and understanding because of the shared language and culture that the community members can depend on – “I get you.”
So what do we do when people come together around that shared sense of defeat, frustration, and driving that BMW conversation – the Bitching, Moaning, and Whining conversation.
We get them to instead drive the VW – the “Values Wish” conversation instead.
A recent study in the Journal of Social Psychology, examined relationships between mindfulness (focusing one’s attention on the present moment), happiness, and complaining. Like happiness, mindfulness is connected to a sense of deliberateness — more mindful people tend to be more aware of how their current actions can affect future outcomes. Happier, more mindful individuals may be better at modulating their complaints, preferring to complain only when it serves a purpose. By contrast, people who are less mindful may complain more often, but to lesser effect.
Finally, complaints are the seeds of unmet desires, hopes, and values.
The next time you happen upon a community of complaint or the next time you find yourself a member of a community of complaint — try something different.
The next time, engage your other community member in a conversation of HOW, WHY, and WHAT.
How can you thoroughly EXPLAIN (and EMPATHIZE with) the situation – rather than respond to the EXCUSE of it?
- Why is this complaint so important to you?
- Why do you feel this way about ______?
- Why do you give it so much energy and attention?
- Why are you so committed to it?
- What’s at stake – what’s most important to you?
- What unrealized value is at the core of your complaint/dissatisfaction?
- What’s the impact – what happens for you?
- What is the impact on you when that value is realized?
- What’s the outcome – what happens for us?
- What is the outcome that we can expect for us when we address the unmet need you have?
When we have conversations that move from complaint to conviction, we tend to have much more productive and positive conversations. Redirect the BMW to become a VW instead. Find the seeds of those unmet deeply held personal values and grow them!
* These questions suggested by the Co-Active Training Institute, 2010