Are you aware that your family members, coworkers, employers, employees, and/or bosses spend some part of their day talking about you? Think about it. If you’re talking about them, chances are you’re also part of their daily dialog.
Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith interviewed a number of his clients and what he discovered matched previous research he read, but found hard to believe: “A majority of employees spend 10 or more hours per month complaining — or listening to others complain — about their bosses or upper management. Even more amazing, almost a third spend 20 hours or more per month doing so.” And that doesn’t even include the complaining they do about their peers and employees. Which would be hard to believe if not for the fact that, if you pay attention to what you experience during your day, you’d find it’s pretty accurate. Imagine the productivity gain of reducing all those complaining hours.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, we complain about other people because it feels really good, doesn’t it? It requires minimal risk and it’s easy. Here’s how it works: Someone annoys us. We’re dissatisfied with how they’re behaving. Maybe we’re angry, frustrated, or threatened. Those feelings build up as energy in our bodies, literally creating physical discomfort. (That’s why we call them feelings — because we actually, physically, feel them.)
The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The rebel adjusts the sails.
When we complain about someone else, the uncomfortable feelings begin to dissipate because complaining releases the pent up energy. That’s why we say things like “I’m venting” or “I’m blowing off steam.” However, that dissipation doesn’t just release the energy, it spreads it, which actually makes it grow. Additionally, when we complain to people who seem to agree with us (why would we complain to people who don’t agree with us?), we solicit comfort, camaraderie, connection, support, and justification, which counteracts the bad feelings with some fresh, new good ones.
It’s true that most people complain because they feel powerless. It’s also true that most people have more power in a situation than they believe they have, even with their boss. And, just maybe, it could be worth the risk to say something. You could say “I see that you’re very angry and I can feel how it’s shutting me down. Can we go a little more gently here?”
It’s a risk. Because the person may blow up even more. Or it may gain you their respect and, in one sentence, change the direction of the leader and the organization. And transform what could have become weeks of complaining into a moment of productive engagement.
What do you think?