How to complain constructively

Constructive complaining

Last week I wrote about chronic complainers at work and what to do about them.

Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m opposed to complaining as such. Complaining can be a great tool for initiating change and if we outlaw complaining in the workplace, as some managers try to do, all we do is drive it underground where it becomes even more toxic.

So we should accept that complaining plays an important role in business, but the key thing here is to know the difference between constructive and unconstructive complaining.

Here are some of the differences:

Unconstructive: Complain about what bugs you the most
Constructive: Complain about the right thing
Is the problem really the problem? Or is there a deeper issue going on? Complain about the problem, not just the symptoms.

Unconstructive: Complain when you feel the most annoyed
Constructive: Complain at the right time
There are times to complain and times not to. Choose a moment where there’s time, will and energy to deal constructively with the issue. Five minutes before an important meeting starts is probably not the time.

Unconstructive: Complain to whoever will listen
Constructive: Complain to someone who can do something about it
If your boss is the problem, complaining to your co-workers can be a lot of fun, but it changes nothing. Complain to your boss or to the boss’s boss.

Unconstructive: Point fingers.
Constructive: Look at yourself first.
Maybe it’s just you who has a problem and everyone else is fine with the situation? Try to recognize those situations where everything is actually fine – you’re just being irrationally annoyed (happens to me all the time).

Also: To what extent are you a part of the problem? How are you contributing to either the problem or to the solution? Before complaining about others, make sure you know what your role in the issue is.

Unconstructive: Seek blame
Constructive: Seek solutions
Going in with the intention of making people admit they’re at fault is rarely productive. Does it really matter whose fault it is? Forget blame and focus on moving on and finding lasting solutions.

Unconstructive: Only complain
Constructive: Also appreciate what’s good
Complain when there’s a reason to, but remember to appreciate the good stuff also – don’t just always complain.

Did I forget anything? Add your thoughts in the comments!

Basically, constructive complaining leads to change whereas the unconstructive variety traps a workplace in the status quo by zapping everyone’s energy, optimism and belief that change is possible.

And that may be part of the attraction of unconstructive complaining: It reinforces a bad situation, but it’s a bad situation you know and have learned to deal with. At the same time it reinforces the status quo and protects you from change that might bring new problems you don’t yet know how to handle. There’s an amount of safety and comfort in it.

But to my mind, unconstructive complaining is a tar-pit that can eventually trap even the sunniest, most optimistic person in a sticky hell of perpetual, ineffectual and often petty dissatisfaction from which people aren’t really seeking a way out.

That’s why we need to be able to break away from the moan-mentality at work and make sure that we complain in a way that makes change happen. Ie. constructively.

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19 thoughts on “How to complain constructively”

  1. Excellent post! Here’s my shorthand take on the matter:

    Unconstructive: Complain
    Constructive: Shut up and do something about it

    I’m reminded of an old joke supposedly from Mark Twain: “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

  2. My boss bullied me so bad i had to quit my job today! It was awful and i feel like crap now

  3. I read your article and I did find what I was looking for. I need to know how to say what I’m complaining about and who to say it too. What I got from your article was ‘don’t complain’ and keep working. Nowhere did you mention when was the best time to get Human Resources involved. Your asking us to speak directly to our supervisors or managers. What if they both are the problem. Neither one cares how you feel, just so long as you do your job. You should have given example on how one should express themselves. You gave example on when NOT to complain, but not when one should. I did not find your article useful.

  4. I’m a very dedicated employee. I’ve been with that company for more than 10 years and have been promoted several times. Work is an very important part of my life. But ever since the new manager came, she doesn’t think I fit my position. I felt that no matter what I did, she is not satisfied with me. She said my communication skill is not good. Now I became a complainer. I complained to her boss but no use. What should I do? Continue to stay in that company with lower position or just quit? Need help!!!

  5. The Nathanial Branden Institute has been criminally harassing me and apparently exploiting me without agreement from me. How do I stop a professional group like this? I was also mistreated during the workshop. suing isn’t feasable since they have been extremely strident with what they do not believe is coercion. eg they attack you

  6. Sorry Alex, this was a great post, but please don’t suggest people go to their boss’s boss. That’s political suicide.

  7. Hi Alex,
    My husband has a big problem at work and needs help. He is a civilian working in an organization plagued with ex military men. All with big egos and little tolerance for those who don’t belong to their clique. His direct manager seemed to like him but due to the constant complains from coworkers he moved my husband from working on planes to work on the boxes the planes get shipped in -talk about downgrading-. Now he gets to work with everybody who is considered unwanted in any other department and who end up creating more problems for him. He was assigned a supervisor who is already suing one of the company’s managers and who is constantly out of the game because he’s more interested in making girlfriends but who constantly puts the blame on my husband for anything that is not done or gets lost or screwed up. My husband is still under the same manager that liked him but now he seems to be under the influence of the constant complains and turned on him. What to do in this circumstances?

  8. The secret is in the learned skill of constructive complaining (feedback): if you cannot offer someone the gift of a helpful complaint ) then you are – simply – not helpful:
    – useful information,
    – clarity on impacts that matter to THEM,
    – alternatives THEY can use/want, and
    – possible or potential for consequences that will impact them

    This isn’t natural to most of us ;-) You have to choose, or be skilled enough, to approach someone well prepared: otherwise, one might hope the complaint recipient will not only sympathize (emotionally as is the case for Carmen’s husband’s boss) but ALSO constructively such that they will respond to a complaint with respectful and empathetic listening AND and problem solve with (or for!) you… but it is natural – and far easier – for the boss or complaint recipient to themselves choose to navigate and easier path… reject the burden of the complaint, and avoid the “complainer”.

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