April 22, 2012
Most of us do not work in a lounge chair on a white sand beach with attentive talking parrot servants to refresh our tropical drinks and sing us show tunes.
And so we complain about work.
But even if we were on that beach with those beverage-toting parrots, we'd probably still find something to gripe about — perhaps one of the birds was a bit flat on "Everything's Coming Up Roses."
We have become, it seems, a nation of complainers, and there is no more fertile ground for grumbling than the workplace.
But why do so many of us forge office friendships from the fires of grousing and commiseration, and then start each day with coffee and kvetching? (I am nothing if not a master of synonyms.)
Michael Cunningham, a psychologist in the department of communication at the University of Louisville, says we were born complaining.
"That's why as infants we come out crying," he said. "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 said we have different ways of using complaints to seek social support: "The most common is people who just want 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."
But 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 said. "If you find other people 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."
I, for example, have tried for years to rally my co-workers by complaining about the lack of a chocolate fountain in the office. We remain fountainless, but I am optimistic.
Complaints also prompt others to tell stories: "You think this is bad, there was this one time when ..." and that can be an excellent source of advice for navigating the workplace.
"Sometimes complaining about challenges or problems is a way of learning survival skills," Cunningham said. "There are all sorts of hints you can learn in different organizations about to how to handle various types of problems."
But as most office dwellers know, 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," said Chrysta Bairre, a personal and business development coach and creator of the blog "Live Love Work" (liveandlovework.com). "If I'm repeating that experience and verbalizing 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.
"Repetition is never a good thing, but it's a tough situation because most people don't even realize they are complaining," Cunningham said. "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?' 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 said. "If I have someone who's the office complainer, I might just go to that person 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?'"
This brings us to a recurring theme in this column — communication. If I had to bet, I'd say a majority of workplace complaining comes from poor communication: bosses who don't give feedback; co-workers who don't say exactly what they need; representatives who don't really listen to customer needs.
So when communication breaks down, what do we do? We complain.
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.
Granted there are other reasons for our snarling. The soda machine ate our money, the cafeteria's attempt at Tandoori chicken was amateurish at best, Hal dropped a box of Xerox paper on my foot — again.
But 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.
Now if anybody needs me, I'll be making fliers to protest my chocolate-fountainless workplace, and probably complaining because the printer's out of toner and my parrot can't remember the words to "Oklahoma!"
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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