Is moaning at work a problem for the organisation, the person complaining, or is it actually healthy? HRM looks at the research.
If you ever get caught complaining, pray you don’t work for someone like US entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran. Her approach to talent management is to hire people who emanate happiness, and sack whingers. “If their family couldn’t give them a positive attitude, there’s nothing I can do that’s going to change it,” she said in a recent New York Times profile.
“I learned that if you have just one unhappy person in a pool of 30 happy people, you feel that weight. I couldn’t wait to get them in my office to tell them they had to leave. I loved firing complainers.”
There’s no shortage of anecdotal workplace advice on this topic, articles from the US in particular seem to relish telling potential complainers how it will destroy their reputation and make them less happy.
But what does the research say?
Sour grapes lead to a heavy heart
The idea that complaining is bad for the organisation but also psychologically bad for the complainant seems to mostly spring from a study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.
The researchers conducted a 3-day diary study among 112 employees and were “able to show that withholding complaints on days that negative events happened worked to minimise their impact.” They also found “an outlook characterised by sportsmanship can buffer employees from problematic effects”.
Some sites leapt on this as proof that complaining is bad for you, including this clickbait-y example from Huffpost titled “Stop complaining at work if you ever want to feel better”. The writer didn’t read all of the research though, as the authors explicitly state this is not how their data should be interpreted.
In fact, they reference other studies showing that petulant complaints can result in long-term improvements to work environments. The authors’ conclusion was that taking problems on the chin is better in the short term but that organisations need to take some responsibility. “Using sportsmanship to overcome short-term negative events might be worthwhile in many situations, but few would benefit if this strategy were to wholly displace other approaches that could better foster workplace improvements.”
This seems like another way of saying that building resilience in your employees is beneficial to them and the organisation, but that resilience can’t become an alternative to positive change – a sentiment that HRM recently investigated.
Energise yourself with complaining
But can having a good whinge actually be, well, good for you?
A qualitative study of doctors, nurses, social workers and caseworkers responsible for palliative care and oncology patients published in Organization Studies, found that griping about work has a slew of benefits.
One of the authors, Dr Vanessa Pouthier from the University of Melbourne, spoke to Pursuit about the research. She points out that complaining helped the medical and support teams by allowing them to recognise that individual members shared similar challenges, and helped break down silos.
“One of the best things in the team… was that these griping rituals helped doctors and nurses realise they were feeling the same way about situations, and they weren’t that different,” she said.
What’s more, complaining was found to help people process negative energy, and it left team members feeling more energised. This sounds good but it comes with a caveat. Griping might be fine, but the target of the gripe has to be something or someone external to the people complaining. You can complain about a difficult person in another organisation, or something abstract like a process, but not a fellow team member.
Laughing through the pain
According to Poutheir, joking is in some ways an even better way to complain. Jokes about common problems defuse the pain it causes. Pouthier also says there is a cognitive benefit.
The logic goes like this: joking leaves people feeling positive, positivity leads to open-mindedness, and open mindedness is what you need to deal with complex problems.
Another potential benefit has a more significant impact.
“You can start out by laughing together about a political situation, such as the organisation’s structure, and that can create a safe place for challenging conversations to happen,” Poutheir said. The outcome can be organisational adjustments that improve things on a larger scale.
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