July 13, 2012
Quit whining: What to do when office griping turns chronic
Most of us do not work in a lounge chair on a white sand beach. And so we complain about work.
But even if we were on that beach, we’d probably still find something to gripe about.
Michael Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville, says we were born complaining.
“That’s why, as infants, we come out crying,” he says. “You express distress in an incoherent manner in hopes there’s a nurturing person who will figure out what you want and give it to you. Some people never get away from that.”
In fact, there are probably some people sitting a couple cubicles over from you who’ve never gotten away from that. Every office has at least one chronic complainer. But there are many other classifications and varying motives for our gripes.
Cunningham says people may complain to seek solace: “They want other people to give them emotional support and say, ‘Oh, you poor thing.’ The goal there is to simply have your status as a suffering martyr be recognized.”
Complaining can also be strategic -- like when you want people to rally around an issue and possibly push management to make a change.
“It’s a bit like people gathering a posse,” Cunningham says. “If you find others who feel the same way you do about a particular issue, you might complain about it with the hope of gathering enough people to turn it into something actionable.”
Complaints can prompt some to tell stories: “You think this is bad? There was this one time when ” That can be an excellent source of advice for navigating the workplace.
But complaining can swiftly move from social or strategic to incredibly annoying.
“I know that I personally am crossing the line if I hear myself telling the same story to more than one person,” says Chrysta Bairre, a personal and business-development coach. “If I’m repeating that experience over and over again, maybe I’ve crossed the line from just releasing tension to hanging on to the experience too much and spreading it around.”
The problem complainers are those who aren’t seeking solutions. If a person keeps coming back with the same gripe when you’ve offered advice and comfort, it might be time to change your behavior.
“If they’ve already told you about it four times and they haven’t followed your advice, then you can say something like, ‘What can I do for you?’ ” Cunningham says. “You’re basically saying you’re at their service if there’s something you can accomplish. Saying that prompts them to stop and think instead of just complaining.”
For managers of the office gripe-meister, Bairre suggests treading carefully.
“You have to walk a fine line between managing behavior and trying to control someone’s behavior,” she says. “I might just go to [the office complainer] and check in with them, use it as an opportunity to open up a dialogue and see if there’s anything I can do to help them. Rather than focusing on the negative behavior and saying they have to change it, say, ‘What’s going on with you? How are things going?’ ”
A lot of workplace complaining stems from poor communication: Workers complain to each other rather than communicating problems to the boss. And bosses often hear the complaining and don’t really try to address the root cause.
When workplace stuff is bugging you, try to find a path toward making it better. Don’t just grab a co-worker and say, “You won’t believe this!”
And managers, don’t write off employee gripes as meaningless. Step out of your offices -- we know you’re just playing “Minesweeper” in there anyway -- and figure out what’s causing the problems.
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