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Leaving the Culture of Complaint

Posted by Lena Gustafsson, PCC | January 10, 2020 | Comments (7)

Some workplaces seem to be caught in negative energy. Conversations are centered around what (and often who) is wrong, not working, or in any way flawed, and there is no attempt to find solutions.  Suggestions of improvements are met by detachment or protesting. “No way! How would we have time?” “Dream on, it’ll never work.” The person bringing them seen as overly optimistic or worse. I call it being caught in the culture of complaint.

It is a way of being that seems to be quite persistent. Employees often leave but even if there are new coming in, they soon turn into complainers, too. Or they leave quickly, saving themselves.

It’s easy to work in a goal-driven, energetic workplace where people are supportive and inspiring. But how do you get your team out of the culture of complaint and give yourselves the chance to be that vibrant team you could be?

The first step is to understand mechanisms behind the culture of complaint.  Modern organizations are lean, and budgets and staffing are tight. Resources are often competed for and tend to be drawn towards identified problems.

Here we have the key element of how a complaint culture is founded—resources directed towards solving a problem. What we focus on we get more of and telling others of our problems pays off. Soon complaining becomes a habit. We tend to be more silent when content; this amplifies that tendency and the culture of complaint starts to spread.

How do you then get out? In this article I will share three keys I have found helpful when getting organizations out of complaining culture and into inspiring efficiency.

1. Beware of How Resources are Allocated

There is one powerful resource we all dispose of, no matter rank. Attention. The power of choosing whether to use it to add onto a complaint culture or to direct it towards cheering progress is immense. You have far more impact than you know; direct your attention wisely.

If in a management position, don’t get tricked by the noise of the complainers, pushing the locus of control outside themselves in contrary to the silence of the problem-solvers. Ensure you are allocating resources according to what you want to see grow. Of course, there are situations when crisis needs extra resources but so do development work and sustainability.

2. Make Room for Creativity

Creativity thrives in non-performing, non-judgemental conversations without an agenda. Where do you have them?  Give room for visionary work. This can be done by actively setting a few aside to lift yourselves out of daily hassles or spending a couple of days in team coaching retreat. Using an external coach to help you get going can work wonders.

In Sweden we have the famous fika, a short daily coffee break to reset and get together. This is not the time to highlight problems. If complaint culture is strong, you may have to agree to really give complaining a pause these minutes. Where is your teams’ opportunity to relax and reflect, exchange ideas, talk of things you enjoy or look forward to?

3. Give Problems the Appropriate Attention

If you get a stone in your shoe, the appropriate attention is to stop short and get it out.

Treat daily problems the same way. Make a quick stop, get rid of what is nagging you and move on. Don’t spend time indulging your pain. Don’t waste your energy trying to pin it on someone. And don’t walk around with an aching stone in your shoe! Simply identify, solve, take your learning and move on.

Bigger problems may not be as easily solved. Every now and then we need to stop and really shake our shoes to get rid of all the sand. Then do it properly. Face the problem in constructive conversations but don’t direct your attention towards complaining without action.

Getting out of the complaining culture is not about turning a blind eye to problems. It’s about the locus of control. Putting the locus of control internally, facing problems, or putting it outside yourself, turning yourself into a victim of circumstances. Any problem where you are not prepared to be part of the solution is not worth your energy at all. Complaining gradually pushes your locus of control away from you and weakens your sense of self-efficacy.

Cherish Your Culture—It All Starts with You

You cannot change others, but you can change the circumstances. To get out of a complaint culture, nurture good patterns moving you in a new direction.

  • Build on what is working (What are you doing good? Do more of that!)
  • Encourage initiatives
  • Reward steps forward by giving it your attention

Have fun and enjoy your progress!

Bonus: Here’s a team exercise you can use to clear the system and get going, do it on your own or use it in team building

Create a “workplace whining list” – Write down everything that bothers you at work, big and small, get it all out there. You should have at least 50 notes on your whining list.

Group your issues into clusters concerning the same kind of things. For example, this could include lost notes, late payments, pens not working, deficient admin routines or too messy of an office. Figure out which ones go together and how they are connected.

Identify the underlying problem in each cluster and come up with ideas on how to solve them, prioritize ordered by how much they bother you (intensity or sum of disturbances).

Pick the first to work on, and a priority list for the rest of them. If you are doing this as a team, assign a who and a when.

As a bonus, you may discover by now that it’s not all that bad. Lots of things on your whining list are probably little things not really bothering you enough to do something about—unless you let it.

lena gustafsson headshot

Lena Gustafsson, PCC

Lena Gustafsson, PCC, holds a Master of Social Sciences, having majored in Psychology. She is past president of ICF Sweden and actively engaged in the development of coaching in her country. She is equally interested in the fields of method development and of building business as a coach; getting the two together is one of her strengths. She is working internationally in all sectors from sole traders to multinational companies to public organizations and NGOs.  She is also working as mentor coach for new and experienced coaches. Besides coaching, she serves as an entrepreneurial startup advisor and does leadership consulting. She is the representative of coaches in the Swedish National Council of Branches and in the national board of Swedish Federation of Business Owners.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

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Comments (7)

  1. yan@yanmaschke.com says:

    Really like your “whining list” exercise, it’s like “mindful whining”. Very cool. Thank you for the article! Yan

  2. Bob Russo says:

    Great article. My whole coaching practice is based on energy management. I am going to post this on LinkedIn.

    I visit Stockholm often and have presented there many times. Maybe we can have a fika next time.

    • Lena says:

      Glad to hear you find it useful.
      A fika is always a good start, do reach out when you have Stockholm plans. I live in the southern part of Sweden but if we are lucky I am in Stockholm when you are. 😊

  3. szilvia.bukta@gmail.com says:

    Great article! I’m only thinking… what would be the best way to handle complaining colleagues (peers)? Should I just listen and walk away, trying to distance myself from them or…?

  4. la-grazia says:

    Good info. Lucky me I recently found your blog
    by chance. I have saved it for later!

  5. Rebecca says:

    Great call out of the external locus of control concept.

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