Why is complaining such a bad move?
Complaining creates a number of dysfunctional side effects (again, beyond the time wasted): It creates factions, prevents or delays — because it replaces — productive engagement, reinforces and strengthens dissatisfaction, riles up others, breaks trust, and, potentially, makes the complainer appear negative. We become the cancer we’re complaining about; the negative influence that seeps into the culture.
Worse, our complaining amplifies the destructiveness and annoyance of the initial frustration about which we’re complaining.
In other words, while the energy dissipates, it expands. The amount of time you spend thinking about it extends for hours, sometimes days and weeks. And you’ve multiplied the people who are also thinking and talking about it.
Meanwhile, our complaining improves, precisely, nothing.
In fact, that might be the biggest problem: Complaining is a violent move to inaction. It replacesthe need to act. If instead of complaining, we allowed ourselves to feel the energy without needing to dissipate it immediately — which requires what I call emotional courage — then we could put that energy to good use. We could channel it so it doesn’t leak out sideways.
If you want to brave this route, let your urge to complain be the trigger that drives you to take action in the moment (or, if you missed the moment, then shortly after):
- Notice the adrenaline spike or the can-you-believe-that-just-happened feeling (e.g., someone yelling in a meeting).
- Breathe and feel your feelings about the situation so that they don’t overwhelm you or shut you down. Notice that you can stay grounded even in difficult situations (e.g., feel, without reacting).
- Understand the part about what’s actually happening that is complain-worthy (e.g., it’s not okay to yell and disrespect others in a meeting).
- Decide what you can do to draw a boundary, ask someone to shift their behavior, or otherwise improve the situation (e.g., “Please let’s respect each other in our conversations.”)
- Follow through on your idea (e.g., actually say: “Please let’s respect each other in our conversations.”)
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps senior leaders create accountability and inspire collective action on their organization’s most important work. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. Read the entire article on Harvard Business Review or download it here.