Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why More Complaining Might Be Good for You

You've have seen the signs around the office...the word whining or complaining circled with a red slash through it.  The message couldn't be clearer...no one is interested in whatever is bugging you.

Sometimes the admonitions go further..."Stop complaining and start doing something."  Or "Don't bring me problems without solutions."

And of course there is our actual and the archetypal Mother's favorite:  "If you don't have anything positive to say, then don't say anything at all."

Despite the contempt with which it is viewed, I think complaining gets a bum rap.  As an executive coach, I find myself regularly advising my clients to complain.  In fact, I would guess that giving clients permission to complain is one of the top ways coaches help their clients.

Here are three reasons complaining can be so valuable:

#1 It reveals something you might not have know was there.  We spend a lot of time trying to fit in, be reasonable, see the other side, get along, toe the party line, etc.  So much so that we can easily lose touch with how we really feel about an issue, an interaction, or a course of action.

This is especially true when you are feeling stuck about something, going round and round about what you think is happening or what you need to do. In those situations, there is often "an edge" around and finding a way to go over it invariably leads to insight.

Giving yourself even two minutes...in your office by yourself or in your car...to say out loud whatever is really on your mind will almost always reveal not only an angle you were not aware of but in some cases a depth of feeling you didn't know existed either.

#2 It gives you a sense of the relative importance of your values.  When you give yourself the freedom to complain, you find out not only what you care about, but what you care most about.  Given everything that is important why is this particular issue standing out at this time for me?

While your concern may not be able to be addressed on the particular issue or situation in front of you, it does allow you to consider other ways you could address the underlying theme you seem to care about.  Did leadership cancel an employee-centered event again due to budget concerns?  How can you organize something for the employees that does not cost as much but still provides something of value to them? 

#3 As a leader, it gives you some insight about the culture of the company or your team.  Letting yourself speak freely reveals what is not being said.  And there is often a reason it is not being said:  the culture/norms are against it.

You might find yourself saying you are sick and tired of how customers are allowed to twist in the wind.  Why isn't that talked about openly?   Maybe a profit focus dominates or the leadership team is made up of "emperors with no clothes" but no one is allowed to say it because of the inevitable blow-back.  This might give you ideas for how to work with others to shift the culture over time or, if that task seems to daunting, ideas about the kind of organization you would be better suited in.

Some Tips on Complaining

So I am recommending you try to complain more. The reaction I usually get from my clients is one of complete shock, accompanied by a nervous but excited laughter.  They often say, "You're kidding.  You want me to what?"  They love this assignment, because no one...ever...invites us to complain.

Given the vitriol that is so much a part of social media, complaining does not seem as if it is anything people need help with.  Nonetheless, consider these recommendations.

First, and of course, I am not recommending that you bend the ear of everyone you meet about your issues.  If you did, it would not take long for them to be complaining about you.  This is something you generally want to do on your own. Often I have my clients do it with me, but if it is an assignment I want them to complete between meetings, I tell them to go someplace where they will not be heard and let it rip.

Second, I always advise them to be completely unreasonable when they are complaining.  In fact, it won't really work unless you allow yourself to really get into it...to the point of whining or maybe even swearing.  You aren't doing those things for the sake of doing them or for affect...after all, you're doing this alone. You are doing whatever you need to do to access the depths of your feelings about what is going on.

Getting unreasonable also helps you figure out what reasonable might look like.  To this end, I sometimes suggest that my clients use their phones to record their jeremiads so they don't have to have some part of their brain paying attention to what they are saying, they can just focus on getting the issues and emotion out.

Finally, it is often helpful to have someone sort through the resulting flotsam with you.  There will be some legitimate issues in there that really should be addressed with an employee or the team or management.  But there will also be some of your hobby horses, punctilios, and pet peeves in there as well.  In the employee kitchen, yes, you wipe the sink and clean up extraordinarily well after yourself.  However, not everyone has your standards on that front and unless you work for Chipotle, I am guessing it is not key your company's success.  You might need to just burn your wood and get over issues like that.

Once the wheat has been separated from the chaff and you have uncovered the depth of your real concerns, the next step will be to figure out what to do about it.  You can google a previous post of mine, Cover the Ground You Stand On:  Getting Clear on Your Position in a Conflict which gives some ideas about what to do with what you learn.

Feel free to complain about this post or anything else in the comments.

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