Ask the CHO: Who has a right to complain

Ask the Chief Happiness OfficerJill read my post about why constant complaining is so toxic in the workplace and then experienced a moment of synchronicity:

I broadly agree with your post, except that, well, right after reading it, my feed reader served up a post from another blogger I enjoy reading called “The Right to Complain“. She and I are both academics, and there’s certainly a culture among many academics to complain about the system we’re in. I’ve found your blog, among others, helpful in trying to figure out what it is that I’m not happy about in my job, and what I am happy about, and which things, if any, I want to change.

Anyway, coming just after each other like that, two posts on complaining that argue very differently. Dr. Crazy argues that academic jobs are extremely difficult, because of the large investment in time and money you’ve put into getting there (thank you Norway for better funding), the large amount of “invisible” work that goes into research, publishing, administration etc, and your lack of choice in where you live, among other things (I’m lucky, I work where I want to live). Yet people tend to think it’s a cushy job, “you only work 12 hours a week”! (that’s the classroom hours).

If you have time, I’d love to hear your opinion after reading her post. Could there be a kind of complaining that’s not directed to someone like the boss, but – well, with an idea that perhaps one should complain to the people who can change things, and those people are sometimes yourself and your colleagues?

Thanks for the link, Jill. That is indeed two very different views on complaining – at least at first glance.

I agree with Dr. Crazy that we all have the right to complain. It’s not like I can tell anyone else that their problems are not worthy of complaining about because what seems a molehill to me might well be a mountain to them – and vice versa.

In fact, if you want to increase workplace complaining, all you need to do is to tell people not to complain because their problems are so trivial they have no right to complain. That‘ll get them complaining for sure :o)

So it’s not really about whether or not we have a right to complain (if somethings’s wrong, you have the right) it’s about how we choose to complain. As I wrote in my post, I believe that there are two fundamentally ways to go about expressing your dissatisfaction: Constructive and destructive.

Broadly speaking, constructive complaining leads to change and destructive complaining leads to more complaining (more here).

I also disagree with her assertion that “if nobody complained, then nothing would ever change, then none of those sucky things would ever be eradicated. ”

Dissatisfaction and complaining is one way to go about changing things – a deep appreciation of what is and a positive desire for the future is another, and in my experience, more effective way of bringing about change. I often refer to this quote by Patch Adams which points to this dilemma:

Change that is deeply effective and positive presents a paradoxical challenge.

On the one hand, there needs to be an appreciation and acceptance of how things are in the here and now. On the other hand, there needs to be an active intention to make things better.

Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve. This is the way to avoid the two extremist traps of activist’s frustration or pessimistic complacency.

– Patch Adams

However I agree totally with Dr. Crazy’s final statement that “if one can’t bitch on a blog, where exactly can one bitch?” :o) It’s like blogs were made for it.

9 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Who has a right to complain”

  1. The first line of the last paragraph from Patch Adams’ quote (“Nothing needs to change, and everything can improve.”) is wonderful.

    Here is one thing I’ve noticed about happiness:

    You’re happy, creating something, and then a negative thought floats into your head. Negative thinking tends you toward inaction. You have a choice here: Keep up the negative thinking until you wear yourself out and go into mental exhaustion; or, you can take some kind of action. Happiness comes from action.

    Keep creating!

  2. I think the motivation behind the complaining is what really matters. If you are complaining with no intention of doing anything about the situation, you should probably keep your mouth shut because it will just make you and those around you more unhappy. If you are complaining as a means of looking for a solution, you aren’t really complaining–you are problem solving.

  3. Great post. I agree that it’s a matter of how we choose to complain. We know that complain in general is something negative. And doing it in a negative way can make it even worse.

  4. I also disagree that complaining is the only way to change things. There are certainly lots of other things that we can do to change the situation without complaining. It’s only a matter of thinking positive.

  5. I have just finished reading your book, Alexander, and I must say your principles are very sound.

    Yes, there is constructive and destructive complaining. I recently had a good talk with my director about how to create a positive environment in the office while at the same time ensuring that we allow everyone the right to voice their grievances and you are right, we have to direct our grievances to those who can effect change.

    Complaining to someone who cannot effect change is reenforcing bad behavior; complaining to someone who can effect change is reenforcing good logic. By this I mean if you complain to someone who cannot affect change you are increasing the sense of helplessness in your team, but if you complain to someone who can affect change you are helping your team to adapt.

    I’ve had superiors who unloaded their troubles on me over coffee. I did not know the business as well as them and had no solutions. I just felt lousy going into work. However, when a subordinate came to me with work problems I felt energized because I had the power to improve their situation.

    Even in a flat hierarchy, knowing who can change what and directing your complaints accordingly is the difference between encouraging and discouraging your team.

  6. Sean: “Negative thinking tends you toward inaction” – exactly! And that’s what many people seem to miss!

    Mark: Exactly – which is why we should never outlaw complaining. We should just make sure to complain constructively!

    Charlie: And that’s the issue. Destructive complaining can feel good in the moment, but rarely leads to anything good.

    Howie: Yep. And it’s up to each of us to look around to find better ways to affect change than just complaining…

    Modern Worker: Thanks!

    Grant: I could not agree more and I’m glad to hear that your company is putting this into practice. I particularly like your focus on “how to create a positive environment in the office while at the same time ensuring that we allow everyone the right to voice their grievances.” That is the balance you need to strike.

    Please let me know how it goes!

    c4chaos: Thanks for the link – it’s nice to have some science to back it up :o)

  7. I am smiling at this post and the wonderful comments. I’ve worked in corporations, non-profits, and government here in the United States. Of course, there is complaining everywhere (we sure need more happiness officers!), but I never thought I’d find more complaining than in government – until I worked in academia. It was everywhere. In fact, I worked with some areas where not wanting to participate in the “us” vs. “them” was seen as threatening. It was almost a cultural necessity to join in the bitch sessions. And it did feel cathartic.

    But in line with all you’ve said, it comes down to how much time you spend moaning and groaning and how much time you spend working to create something better for yourself…or just choosing to give yourself a break from the feeding frenzy. I love what Grant did and hope more people follow his lead, but sometimes you wind up with a boss who has their own major trust issues and/or a need to find enemies everywhere. If that’s the case and you need to stay in that toxic environment for whatever reason, the good news is you can still choose to do all you can to increase your own positivity quotient.

    I had a Chinese doctor who once told me “It’s serious, but don’t take it seriously.” Positive action and attitude can do a lot to change the way we feel about our work day. Sure the bad stuff still happens…but we don’t have to breathe it in and make it who we are. Thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful post!

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