When You Should (or Shouldn’t) Complain at Work
Opinions vary as to whether complaining is a positive or negative thing. On the positive side, complaining is sometimes a way to ask for help. If you complain to your coworkers about the problem you’re facing with a troublesome customer, they may offer ideas that suggest solutions you hadn’t thought of.
When two or more people discover they share a certain dissatisfaction, complaining can serve as a bonding experience. Misery loves company, and all that. Complaining is also a way of sharing your perspective with your teammates and gaining confirmation of that perspective or—providing you’re open to hearing what they have to say—learning that you’re on the wrong track or they just don’t agree with you.
Complaints can actually serve as a starting point for solving problems. For example, in the Temperature Reading, a simple yet powerful tool devised by family therapist Virginia Satir to help teams reduce tensions, one segment is called Complaints with Recommendations. The person who voices a complaint recommends a way to address the complaint or requests recommendations from the team. This approach gives complaints a constructive, problem-solving tone.
On the downside, complaining can lead to a woe-is-me, I’m-a-victim mentality. If it were only the complainer who suffered, it might not be so bad. But complaining affects everyone who works near or with the complainer. It’s a perfect example of secondhand stress, which is the stress that results from being around someone who is stressed and being unable to help relieve the situation.
Furthermore, a pattern of complaining can damage one’s mental health with accumulated frustration and feelings of helplessness. And being exposed to too much complaining—even as little as thirty minutes of negativity—can damage neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving. Research suggests that the more you’re around a negative person, the more likely you are to mimic the person’s behavior and become a complainer yourself.
Too much complaining can result in a complaining culture. It’s demoralizing to work in an organization in which complaints dominate and no one seeks to resolve them. Complaining becomes contagious because the absence of solutions leads to more and more things to complain about, and eventually, some of the complaints are about the nonstop complaining.
Maybe we can take a hint from this quote (author unknown) about the power we have to transform complaints: “Today I can complain because the weather is rainy, or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free." Sometimes, it’s all in how you look at it.