We’ve all been there. It’s Monday morning and the coffee machine in the office kitchen isn’t working. But that’s not so bad – hopefully you can pop out to the coffee shop nearby and get a good substitute for you daily dose of caffeine. So after a short exchange with your colleagues, you’re good to go. Your boss bursts in to your office ten minutes before you wanted to leave and demands a last-minute meeting. One eyeroll and a few snorts of derision later you are hopefully on your way home as planned. A bit of complaining in between helps relieve the momentary tension. Of course, situations like these don’t really have serious consequences for productivity in the workplace, if you don’t let them get under your skin.
But just how far can complaining at work go? Is there a danger of slipping in to too much complaining? Is complaining healthy? How do we complain at work, anyway? Well, we definitely do, and there are actually studies that observe emotions in the workplace, says a New York Times article. They also contribute significantly to researching empathy, as studying complaining has as much to do with the complainee as the complainer.
Sigal Barsade, management professor at the Wharton School in the University of Penndylvania, is one such specialist. She is quoted as saying, “If we suppress our dissatisfaction, it will come out in other ways, and it will reduce our cognitive function.” But too much complaining can indeed have consequences, if it replaces actual problem solving or becomes a persistent habit. In the latter case it also doesn’t do much for a healthy social exchange between employees.
If done in moderation and with a dose of humor, complaining can help form bonds between colleagues and forge work friendships. However, there is a fine line between the occasional harmless complaint and insistent negativity. What is actually a legitimate complaint needs to be handled with the help of a boss or supervisor. Examples include salaries, workplace disruptions, noise levels and workloads. Barsade speaks of a “complaining culture”.
Robin Kowalski, another specialist in the field, is a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. She is quoted as saying that workplaces with the best collegiality and a good work atmosphere are those where “people can feel free to respectfully complain.” If employees have the opportunity to air their complaints, a potential problem is validated as real, and a solution can become more clear.
Specialists say most often a complaint does mean that workers are truly discontent or dissatisfied about a real issue. While complaining may serve the purpose of venting in this case, or making people feel less overloaded emotionally afterwards, it will not make a real problem go away. For those on the receiving end of the complaining about a weighty issue, professor Kowalski suggests following two steps. Listening and expressing empathy is the first one. If the complaining persists the next day, offering a different perspective or brainstorming about a solution is strongly recommended.
The article repeatedly mentions authentic complaints. While incessant complaining isn’t too popular in the long run, if it starts happening more often en masse, this might be a signal for managers to start looking for a common cause. Because otherwise possible consequences could range from lower productivity to legal action from employees.
But beware. We all know the type of person who is only too eager to dump all their emotional baggage on others, whether work-related or not. In fact, professor Kowalski calls this type “the help-rejecting complainer”. Regardless of what you will suggest, they will just keep on complaining. How to deal? Try to steer the conversation in the direction of other topics, or just avoid such a person. Typically these employees are like a virus-carrier, spreading dissatisfaction in their wake and causing overall morale to sink. Complaining is catchy, but it doesn’t need to be a permanent illness. “Complaining,” says Kowalski, “has to be strategic, and it has to be done in moderation, in order to have positive outcomes.”
Now, all this might seem obvious, but complaining as a universal human behaviour has inspired surprisingly little research so far. In fact, as Robin Kowalski herself told the New York Times, she came took up the subject after talking to a colleague about the difficulty of finding a new research specialty in psychology. The colleague jokingly suggested tackling complaining from an academic point of view. Professor Kowalski says complaining has to do with expressing dissatisfaction, regardless of how you are actually feeling, which only contributes to the complexity of the topic. But doesn’t render it any less important.
No complaints here.
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