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“If I added up all the time I’d spent listening to people complain about each other last week: 3 hours and 45 minutes. And that was just the time they spent complaining to me.” - Glenn Leet
This is, unfortunately, not unusual. The legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, interviewed more than 200 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.
Why do we complain about other people?
Because it feels (really) good, requires minimal risk, and it’s easy.
Here’s what happens: 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).
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” (But, as we’ll see in a moment, 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 — and we almost always complain to people who seem to agree with us — we solicit comfort, camaraderie, connection, support, and justification, which counteracts the bad feelings with some fresh, new good ones.
Complaining changes the balance of negative/positive energy and, for a brief moment at least, we feel better. It’s actually a pretty reliable process. Addictive even.
Which is the problem (beyond even the wasted time): Like just about all addictions, we’re feeding the spin of a destructive, never-ending cycle. The release of pressure — the good feeling — is ephemeral. In fact, the more we complain, the more likely the frustration, over time, will increase.
Here’s why: when we release the pent-up energy by complaining, we’re releasing it sideways. We almost never complain directly to the person who is catalyzing our complaints, we complain to our friends and families. We’re not having direct conversations to solve a problem, we’re seeking allies. We’re not identifying actions that could help, we’re, almost literally, blowing off steam.
Why is complaining about 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 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.
Think about it: someone yells in a meeting. Then you go to the next meeting (where no one is yelling) and you complain about the person who just yelled. Now other people, who weren’t at the initial meeting, feel the impact of the yelling and get upset about it too. Encouraged by their support, your brief, momentary release transforms into righteous indignation and, becoming even more incensed, you experience the initial uncomfortable feelings all over again.
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 replaces the 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.
In other words, let the uncomfortable feeling you have — the one that would otherwise lead you to complain — lead you to take a productive action.
What’s a better move when we feel like complaining?
Go ahead and complain. Just do it directly — and thoughtfully — to the person who is the cause of your complaints.
“Talk to the person who yelled in the meeting. If that person doesn’t listen, talk to their boss. If you don’t like that idea, then, when it actually happens, say “Hold on. Let’s respect each other in this conversation.” If you missed the opportunity in the moment, then meet with them afterwards and say, “Please let’s respect each other in our conversations.” - Glenn Leet
That, of course, also takes emotional courage. It’s a scary, more risky thing to do. But it’s why it’s worth developing your emotional courage — because, while scary, it’s far more likely to be highly productive. It holds the potential for changing the thing that’s the problem in the first place. And rather than become the negative influence, you become the leader.
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.”)
It’s not nearly as easy as complaining. But it will be far more productive and valuable.
It won’t always work like that, but you may be surprised how often it will.
Thanks for Reading, we hope you got something positive from this. If you want to know more about Inspired Trades Coaching Visit us here www.inspiremenow.com.au
Glenn Leet, Inspired Trades
Adapted HBR Bregman Aug 2018