How Offices Become Complaint Departments

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THERE is the ideal life, and then there is life as it really exists. We have various ways of expressing discontent over this inevitable gap, and one of the most common is complaining.

The workplace is no exception. The office is too hot or too cold. Brenda has been making personal calls all day. The boss is making me work on a Saturday. More seriously: that manager is a bully. I think that person's behavior was unethical. My salary is much lower than everyone else's.

Imagine a workplace with no complaining at all, and a totalitarian government comes to mind. "If we suppress our dissatisfaction, it will come out in other ways, and it will reduce our cognitive function," says Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies emotions in the workplace.

But complaining can also damage a workplace, she says -- either because a legitimate complaint is not addressed or because complaining has spread like a contagion from worker to worker.

"You can get a complaining culture," she says.

The work settings with the highest morale and the greatest collegiality are those in which "people can feel free to respectfully complain," says Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. When people air their complaints, they can receive validation that a problem is real, and move closer to a solution.

Professor Kowalski began studying complaints after searching for a research specialty and bemoaning to an academic colleague that all the best psychology topics were taken. He said jokingly: "You're so good at complaining -- maybe that's what you should investigate." She found that surprisingly little research had been done on behavior that is universal.

Professor Kowalski defines complaining as "an expression of dissatisfaction, whether you feel dissatisfied or not" -- and that is part of what makes the topic so complex.

Complaining can help break the ice and strengthen bonds with others. ("Can you believe they expect us to finish that report by tomorrow?") It can be a way to present yourself in a certain light -- for example, an executive at a business dinner may complain about the food to show he has discriminating tastes, Professor Kowalski says.

It can be also be a form of one-upmanship, she adds. If one worker complains about her heavy workload, another worker may feel compelled to say: You think you've got it bad? You should see what I have to do!

OFTEN, though, complainers really are dissatisfied about something. In that case, venting about it can serve as an emotional catharsis, Professor Kowalski says.

Sometimes a session of venting is enough, if the problem is minor. But if it's serious, merely complaining will not be enough. To help a complainer whose problem is more weighty, Professor Barsade recommends a two-pronged approach. First, simply listen and express empathy. Then, maybe the next day, try to give the complainer advice, or get him or her to look at the situation from multiple perspectives and work toward a realistic solution.

We all know that certain people are temperamentally disposed to complain, and there is an extreme version of this type, Professor Kowalski says: "the help-rejecting complainer." Work becomes the focus of all the wrongs that have been done to that person.

"They complain incessantly," she says, "and you're not going to offer them any solution that they've not already thought of."

These employees are at high risk of being fired. They can help foment a wave of complaining that spreads quickly as other workers become more aware of their own dissatisfaction, she says, causing morale to plummet. Other employees may find it useful to tune out this type of employee or redirect the conversation away from the complaint, she says.

But incessant complaining could also signal a truly serious problem in the workplace, she adds, which is why managers must be able to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic complaints. Not resolving an authentic complaint could lead to workplace incivility, lower productivity, higher absenteeism and possibly even legal action, she says.

What is the most effective way to complain, provided you don't just enjoy it for its own sake? Make sure to deliver your complaint to the person who can actually do something about it, Professor Kowalski says. Complaining to colleagues about your pay is unproductive: your boss needs to hear your case.

"Complaining," she says, "has to be strategic, and it has to be done in moderation, in order to have positive outcomes."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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