A paean to the malcontents, misanthropes and curmudgeons in our midst (draft)

Raise your hand if you love to work in a workplace full of complainers

I’m guessing that most of us kept our hands as low as possible. Most of us don’t wake up thinking, “I sure hope someone gives me a big negativity boost today!” Being around someone who complains a lot can be a real drag. Listening to people complain can be especially draining if the object of the complaints is “those idiots,” “that crazy system” or “that stupid decision.” When people complain about something that doesn’t seem to be within our circle of influence our natural reaction to these complaints might be something like, “Yea, I get it, but I still have to do my job and your whining is making me feel horrible and that makes it hard for me to focus on doing the things I have to do.” There is a whole literature telling us we can and should push complainers away so we can stay focused, produce better results, get promoted and achieve our dreams. Being associated with people known to complain can even increase the risk that our names might come up on the wrong side of the ledger during reorganization and rightsizing discussions.

There are obviously times when complaining is not likely to be productive because, in fact, there is no way for the people listening to the complaint to improve the situation. For example, complaining to the airline agent when your flight has been delayed (again) generally won’t change the fact that your flight has been delayed. And it probably won’t increase the likelihood that the agent will be able or willing to do something to alleviate your suffering. Likewise for personal attacks and nagging; these are rarely a formula for improvement of anything.

The instinct to avoid or even to try to eliminate the malcontents, curmudgeons and misanthropes in our midst is not surprising; it is only reasonable to respond to negativity with negativity. That said, avoidance often is not the most effective or productive response. Like most things, complaining is contextual and the devil is often in the details.

Complaints are gifts that keep on giving, even though they are usually gifts we would rather not receive.

Complaining is one way we let people know that we see gaps between how things are and how we think they could or should be. When we complain, we are naming a gap. Our understanding of that gap and its root causes is often incorrect or incomplete, but our sense that something is not as good as it could be is often valid. In this sense, complaining is often the first in a series of steps that might eventually lead to improvements. Articulating a sense of dissatisfaction can even be the first step in a process leading to huge breakthroughs. By cutting ourselves off from complainers and their complaints, we risk cutting ourselves off from information revealing opportunities to make things better.

Not all complainers are created equal

Someone who cares enough to complain may care enough to try to improve things. Scratch a cynic and you often find a disillusioned idealist. I know some people who complain a lot AND who ALSO work harder, think more creatively, get more done and do more good than most of the more “positive” people I know. I also know people who have slipped into a pattern of complaining to their peers as a survival mechanism because they’ve been punished in the past by someone for speaking up about something that could be improved. Having been punished for expressing their wish for something better, they may have slipped into more despondent complaining like an animal that licks its wounds after losing a fight.

Complaining is one way we test whether we are in a psychologically safe space

Complaining is often a human bonding behavior and it can be cathartic. It is one of the ways we articulate our understanding of sources of stress. The articulating of that understanding CAN itself sometimes be the beginning of a process that liberates us from the actual sources of our stress, even though the actual root causes of that stress may not be the things we are complaining about.

Complaining is one way that we “vent” and venting (releasing) negative energy is often part of the natural process we need to follow to recover from one round of focused effort and prepare for the next one. Having vented, we sometimes find that our minds have cleared up to the point that we feel mentally and physically ready to dive back into the fray.

All of the above said, if ALL WE DO is complain WITHOUT doing anything to improve the situation about which we are complaining, then something is out of whack – either inside us, in our environment or both.

If we hear a lot of complaints, but we don’t see much action being taken to address the complaints, it may be time to adjust something. We may need to find ways to make it easier for ourselves and others to build on the awareness of gaps through more effective problem solving and experimentation.

Here are some things we might try

I recently read an article by a former colleague full of great advice on what we can do to move ourselves out of complaining and into a productive mode. There was a lot of wisdom in this article, but as I read it I wondered if adjusting our frame of reference might open up even more possibilities. Rather than dismissing the natural instinct to complain from our inner worlds, perhaps we could have even more impact by investing that mental energy in facilitating a process through which we and our complaining colleagues use our complaints as triggers for improvement. What complainers are often looking for is evidence that someone else cares as much as they do. They may be looking for someone else who shares their high expectations for the company or the customer experience. Or they may be looking for someone who shares and cares about their work experience. We may be able to help each other convert these complaints into ideas for improvement with some combination of the following techniques:

  • Listen – Try to help the complainer work through the source of dissonance. If you have a trusting relationship with the individual you can ask them questions based on a critical thinking model like CIAO (Context/Intention/Action/Outcome) to help them to discover a pattern and potential leverage points to resolve the problem.
  • Sympathize – This is different from empathizing, which is covered below. When you sympathize with someone you are validating for them that it is reasonable for them to feel the way they do. By affirming that their negativity has a basis in reality, you can help them move through the process of venting, so they can transition to reframing the situation in a way that is empowering.
  • Empathize – Take a moment to try to get inside their world. What would the world look like if you were in their situation? What would it feel like? By going inside their world, you may notice something that you hadn’t noticed before. You may also notice a way to interpret their experience in terms that are empowering rather than paralyzing.
  • Reframe – As you listen, sympathize and empathize, you are gaining information that enables you to see the situation from a broader perspective by switching back and forth between their perspective and your own. In the process, you may notice something that seems obvious to you, but which that person hadn’t noticed because the stress of their situation had trapped them in a state of stress-induced tunnel vision. If you’ve empathized effectively, you may even be able to alleviate the stress and broaden their perspective, which is often a key element of problem solving.
  • Refine and/or collaborate – If you find that you also care about the problem, you may choose to help the person refine their thinking on how to pursue a solution. You’ll want to think carefully about your role though. Are you there to facilitate a process by which they move from complaint to analysis to ideation to action? Or are you there to step in and solve the problem for them? It goes without saying that you should also have a strategy for extracting yourself from a shared doom loop if the negativity becomes too much for you personally to handle. The goal is to elevate the person with the complaint, not to dig your own hole of misery.

No one loves negativity. Still, ignoring the negative is often not the best way to create something sustainably positive. Some complaints reveal real opportunities to make something better, and with a little help, some complainers can launch us on a search that leads to the discovery of a better way. With a little empathy, sympathy and critical thinking we may be able to convert complaints into substantial improvements.

On a positive note, complaints can be a gift that never stops giving. The wayward mind can always find new sources of dissatisfaction. Even after we address one problem the malcontents in our midst will always be able to find new opportunities for us to reduce their suffering;)

In other words, there is an unlimited number of opportunities for improvement and growth out there if we are balanced and resilient enough to embrace the challenges and the people who articulate those challenges for us.

© Dana Cogan, 2023, all rights reserved.

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