Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Feintzeig explains how complaining at work can be beneficial for both your career and performance and offers expert-backed tips about how to complain "gracefully" without becoming the "department whiner."
According to Feintzeig, if you want to advance your career, you should "[l]earn to complain well."
"Stay silent and you'll stew in resentment and let burgeoning problems fester," Feintzeig writes. "Speak up and you can alert leaders to hidden issues, fix the frustrating parts of your job and show you're ready for the next step up."
For example, Ted Blosser, CEO of WorkRamp, said one of his managers scheduled a call with him to explain the weak points of the company's sales pitch. She compiled customer reactions and identified the exact slides that weren't doing well. Her proposed solution of new slides ended up closing sales, and Blosser now seeks her out when he needs advice.
Aside from impressing a leader in your organization, complaining well could also improve your work performance.
In a recent study, researchers found that sales employees at an insurance company who complained to their peers about work problems had a 10% decrease in performance. In comparison, employees who brought problems to their bosses had a 15% increase in performance.
According to Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business who worked on the study, these workers brought their problems to someone who could address them and make changes instead of wasting time complaining.
Although complaining can be beneficial at times, "[u]nleashing your complaints without restraint can backfire," Feintzeig writes. To avoid any potential problems, experts offer several tips on how to complain the right way:
Focus on the facts of a problem
According to Dina Denham Smith, an executive coach from San Francisco who has worked with DocuSign and Adobe, it is important describe a problem in a straightforward and factual way instead of being accusatory or gossipy.
Specifically, explain the impact the problem is having on the business. "If your team is too small, what projects are suffering? What opportunities are you having to forgo because of this roadblock?" Feintzeig writes.
Be careful with the words you use
The words you use when talking about problems with your boss matter, Detert said. To show that you are on the same team, he recommends starting statements with "we" instead of "I." Using "and" instead of "but" can also help link ideas instead of discrediting them.
For example, say "We've had a great start, and I have some ideas to take it to the next level" instead of "I know this is your baby, but we need to move on." The first language will make the listener feel less threatened, Detert said.
Some other things to avoid include definitive statements, such as "It's so obvious we should fix this," and phrases that mention frequency, such as "You never do this" or "You always do that." In some cases, the person you're complaining to will focus on trying to disprove your point instead of hearing you out.
"You lose credibility because now you've sort of exposed yourself as exaggerating or ignoring inconvenient data," Detert said.
Come with potential solutions, but leave room for further input
According to Smith, she advises her clients to approach their bosses with potential solutions and explain what they've tried so far to show that they have taken initiative.
You should also leave room for input from your boss, with Smith recommending people ask, "Do you see other paths?" as a way to elicit a response.
"If you rally your manager's help in figuring out a solution, she will be more bought in and fight harder to get the change done with her higher-ups," Feintzeig writes
Don't overwhelm your boss with complaints
Constantly "fielding complaints can be exhausting" for bosses, who are often "bombarded daily by pleas for resources, gripes about teammates and vaguely passive-aggressive demands from" other departments, Feintzeig writes.
This means that you should try not to overwhelm your bosses with complaints, especially if they're not relevant to the business. "You really don't want to come in as, 'Woe is me,'" Smith said.
According to Blosser, managers should keep conversations with employees centered on work itself. In general, workers should focus 90% of their communications with leaders on general updates and showing that they're doing their work.
For the remaining portion that is focused on complaints, Blosser said that you should be positive and concise and come with data to show why the problem you're highlighting is important.
"We're your workplace, not your babysitter," Blosser said. And that means making sure you bring up your complaints "gracefully," or you "risk becoming the department whiner," Feintzeig writes. (Feintzeig, Wall Street Journal, 3/27)
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