Workplace complaints: When good chatter turns bad

One thing I know for sure is that people like to complain. As a project manager, I’m often on the receiving end of workplace complaints. There’s always something that isn’t going right – unclear objectives, a difficult team member, unreasonable expectations, breakdowns in communication – and on and on. One of the trickiest responsibilities of a good project manager is keeping the chatter down, addressing real complaints as quickly as possible, and sometimes just listening empathetically and then refocusing the team back on the work.

It takes little effort to complain. It makes people feel good. And it is ubiquitous. The most ridiculous complaint I ever got was while leading a group of senior citizens on a bus tour. A lovely gentleman stopped to tell me the sun was in his eyes. He seriously was asking me to help resolve this problem. I graciously suggested he hold up his arm to shield the sun.

In our office this summer, the ambient, inside air temperature has been a good source for complaints. It’s been a scorcher of a summer. We work in an older building that has been built out numerous times and has kind of a hodgepodge of air vents and ducts. We’ve got people that run hot and people that run cold. And on top of it all, the air conditioner really did stop operating for a few days. After several visits from a technician we seem to have hit a temperature that the majority can tolerate, but no doubt workplace complaints will arise again.

Just the other day, I found this article from Inc. that says listening to excessive complaining is actually damaging your brain. Now this brings the seriousness of complaining to a whole new level of concern. I love the tips they provide: 1) Distance yourself. 2) Ask the complainer to fix the problem. 3) Shields up! – all great techniques on how to cope.

But, this got me thinking on what is a healthy workplace complaint and what is a damaging complaint in the workplace. Here’s my take on the subject:

1) Avoid open-ended complaints. Healthy complaints should have a potential resolution and benefit.

2) The benefit needs to be a shared benefit, not just one of personal gain.

3) The complainer should always consider themselves first in the resolution of the complaint, before verbalizing to others.

Now, we’ve all got to blow off steam from time to time. But that’s probably best saved for a trusted friend/colleague or for happy hour. If we actually could see the damage we’re inflicting by complaining I am sure we’d all change our behavior.

So, check yourself. Protect yourself. What’s your favorite complaint story?

Contributed by Trisha Reperowitz

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