Previously published on Forbes.com
John Oliver called it whining.
In a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, he was talking about the complaints that men are voicing over the #MeToo movement. “I’m afraid to hire women.” “I don’t know the rules.” “I don’t know if I can hug a woman at work.”
Whining, complaining, griping. It’s everywhere these days, hanging over us like a cloud. And some of it is rooted in some serious issues. The news, after all, can be pretty depressing. We have so much to complain about — global warming, politics, bad behavior from very powerful men, cyber-attacks, violence. At work, people are more stressed than ever, working too long, dealing with terrible bosses and toxic cultures. We are just waiting to be annoyed and irritated.
But here’s a news flash: Complaining in general, and especially at work, isn’t helping.
We define complaining as describing an event or person negatively without naming the next steps you will take to fix the complaint:
Robin is only out for herself and her career. She interrupted me three times while I was talking in the meeting.
The sales team just makes stuff up to make a sale and expects us to deliver on their random promises.
Oh, sure, there are some upsides to complaining. It can provide comfort and bond people together, acknowledging that they have shared experiences and frustrations. It also helps people relieve pressure and tension by blowing off steam.
The downside? Chronic complaining replaces productive engagement because once you have some relief from the discomfort, you are unlikely to take a productive action. You won’t go to the person or people that can do something about your complaint. And groups of people who allow one another to complain don’t insist that you do. Cultures of complaints become unhappy workplaces where no one wants to be.
Here’s the extra bad news. Complaining affects your brain.
Steve Parton, an expert in neuroscience, explains that, because of the way the brain works, your thoughts reshape your brain: “The brain is rewiring its own circuitry, physically changing itself to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together–in essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger.” As a result, your repeated complaints make it easier to think about more complaints.
Parton explains how this process leads to a generally more pessimistic outlook: "Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought...the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.”
But this is something you can — and should — be in control of. You just have to make the choice not to give in to every negative thought. Accept reality, but don’t spend all your time, energy and brainpower complaining about it.
So, what are a couple of strategies you can try now that you know all of this?
1. Take accountability. The higher an executive moves up, the more personal responsibility you have to take for your actions and results — what’s happening all around you. Stop blaming others and look to see what you did or didn’t do that contributed to the issue.
2. View it as a challenge. “Stop complaining” is the obvious answer, but that can be easier said than done. So try making a game out of it. A client shared with me a book she was reading, A Complaint Free World, by Will Bowen. It challenges you to go 21 days without complaining, criticizing or gossiping. It’s no joke. You wear the bracelet and switch it to the other arm if you catch yourself complaining. As someone who loves projects and games, I signed right up. And of course, I signed my team up with me. We ordered the “complaint-free world” bracelets and have now started the 21-day challenge.
3. Make a request. Under every complaint is a request that has not been made. We encourage our clients to think about what requests they could make and of whom. It might sound like this, “Robin, I noticed that you interrupted me three times in the meeting today. Would you please hold your thoughts until after I am done speaking?” The idea is to make a request of the person or people who can do something about it – and the complaint would be fixed.
The most important thing you can do right now is to raise your awareness so you can start catching your own patterns and complaints. There are plenty of reasons why people are complaining today, but there are also a lot of good reasons why you should stop. Increase your own self-regulation and stop yourself when you find you’re complaining in a way that doesn’t move anything forward. Complaining is one of those things that should be regulated.
No one likes a whiner.