Converting Complaints to Positive Leadership

Thank you to the 231 of you who weighed in on my survey on complaining last week! I am afraid I botched the design a little,* but the core data remains fascinating:  People who responded guesstimated that they complain between 14 and 18 times a day.

My inquiry was fueled by two essential leadership truths : (1) Emotional intelligence begins with self awareness, and (2) Positive leadership generates dramatically better results — both in terms of group productivity and group satisfaction.  Thus, if you want to lead effectively, it behooves you to heighten awareness of the degree to which you are (often unconsciously) introducing or amplifying negativity in the system. Psychological research indicates that exposure to complaining generates stress in others, and, compounding this effect, complaining tends to generate mimicry. So, complaining fuels complaining and complaining generates stress.

So, how do you stop the downward cycle of complaining? Go first!

1. Pay attention to your mind.  Simply notice when you are about to complain. See: you have a choice.

2. Stop.

3. Ask: Is this complaint actionable?  Complaints deal with real problems.  And while complaining (or whining) seldom changes things yet brings people down, there are two constructive ways to translate a complaint.  First, simply share information in an objective way.  For example, are you sure the IT department knows an application isn’t working? Do your kids know how upsetting it is to you when they don’t thank their grandparents? Does your boss know this is the third time in a week she has deferred a decision that would help you to get her work done?

The second constructive way to process a complaint is to turn it into a request. In the examples above, it would mean explicitly asking the IT people to address something, specifically asking your child to send a thank you note to Grandma today, and asking your boss if she could please come to a conclusion on the dangling matter so you can move the work forward. It’s easier to complain than to share information, or make a request for someone to help us, but whining seldom changes anything.

A final point and option are key.  Often complaining only makes us feel worse, less powerful and more victimized. So, the final constructive option is to gain perspective by asking:  “Does this really matter to me? Is this traffic, this messy kid, this indecision on my boss’ part really where I want to keep my focus? Or can I choose to focus instead on what is good and right and positive?” In my own Lenten commitment to stop complaining, I’ve found myself starting out, “I can’t believe….” and finishing what I started as a complaint with “how fortunate I am!” And I mean it.

As always, I’d love your thoughts – like last week’s two wonderful comments — as you

Lead with your best self,



* People guesstimated that they complained 18.4 times per week. After a day of awareness, they guesstimated the amount was 14.7.  The “botch” was that my two questions allowed two completely different interpretations.  My intent was not to get people to see that they could make a difference and thus guesstimate that they would complain less.  Instead, I was thinking they would have the observational experience I had: “Wow, once I watch my mind and mouth, I realize that I complain way more than I thought.”  It is possible that others – unlike me – actually realized that they don’t complain as much as they think. But I suspect they were not just reporting on what their behavior was but were reporting on what they would like it to become. The latter, of course, is the purpose of my writing on this topic, but was not the purpose of my data-gathering.

  • While I can’t say that I enjoyed this activity it sure did heighten my awareness about complaining. I realize that I have a choice in the matter and am also becoming more mindful of adding to or reinforcing a complaint made by someone else.

  • I happen to be one of those people that messed up your data, but I have a different thought as to why people would rate themselves higher on a guestimate than what they did in actual observation, the second number.

    We pretty much knew your hypothesis going in, which I think would cause us (me at least) to guess a little high on the first response, with my thinking being something
    like…”Huh, I don’t think I complain that much but Dan is probably right…I probably complain more than I think I do, so my first thought would be ____ but I’ll bet its more like _____ ” and so I entered the second number. When I actually tried to be aware of when I complain, I actually came closer to my first guess.

    The second problem of course with this kind of “research” is that I found it really
    difficult to be mindful of this throughout the day, and, of course, there may
    have been times that I was complaining when I really didn’t think I was. True
    self reflection is oh so difficult.

    Nonetheless, I am surely thankful for the attempt at this exercise, and will continue to play with it, as it does help in that difficult battle with self awareness!

  • I watched a TED talk today about the science of the left brain and right brain and can’t help relating it to your post, with the left brain being the “voice in your head” that does the complaining, and the “wiser” right brain understanding we’re all human, all striving to be our best selves. It’s the most watched TED talk ever – if you want to check it out, here it is:

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