The power and danger of complaining

Do you know someone who you greet each Monday with “Good morning, how are you?” Does their answer generally focus on an incident that happened to them over the weekend, a bruise or ache they have, or even a phrase beginning with “did you hear what happened to…..?”

Many of you could name those folks. They would be classified as a complainer. But how does complaining impact you and others?

Studies have shown that 78% of employees spend 4 ½ hours per week listening to coworkers complain. One in ten employees quit their jobs because they don’t want to work with these complaining coworkers, those that quit are your high performing positive employees. Three quarters of U.S. employees surveyed would turn down a job with a $10,000 raise if they had to work with complaining coworkers.

Complaining is a competitive sport, according to Will Bowen author of A Complaint Free World. Complaining keeps the focus on the problem, delaying the finding of a solution. There is a story of two men eating lunch. The first day the two are sitting down for lunch, each pulling out their lunch. One man begins complaining to the other about getting a meatloaf sandwich for lunch. The next day they sit down, the same situation occurs. On day three, the scenario repeats itself. One man finally says to the man complaining “Why don’t you tell your wife to make you something different for lunch than a meatloaf sandwich?” His peer responds “I make my own lunch!”

We have control over what and how we speak to others. There is a saying, complaining is like bad breath, notice what comes out of someone else’s mouth, but not your own. This can be difficult to identify and change. We use complaints to express grief, pain or discontent. Voicing a complaint is also the easiest way to begin a conversation. How often have you heard “The Lions sure played horribly yesterday!”?

Complaining occurs for one of five reasons. People use it to gain attention, a basic human need. They use it to inspire envy, it elevates the complainer in the conversation. It provides power by enraging and engaging others. And it excuses poor performance by blaming the cause on someone else.

How do we help change the complainers? Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on developing solutions, while also being positive. Use phrases like: What is going well with you? If it were possible, how would you complete this task? How do you plan to improve over time?

There is a saying “the squeaky wheel may get the grease, but if it squeaks too much it ends up getting replaced.” Identifying problems is needed in society and business, but dwelling on them is not productive or healthy. I challenge you to Will Bowen’s 21 day challenge of not complaining each day, when you do complain, the clock restarts to day 1. It takes people on average 8 months to complete the full 21 straight days of not complaining, but it will impact everyone around you in a positive way. Ben Franklin once said “the best sermon is a good example.” Wise advice.

Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.


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