How to Redirect Rampant Complaining

There are plenty of reasons for people to complain right now. For example, recent data shows that only 25% of leaders think their employees are thriving emotionally and mentally. And in the typical workplace, there are dozens of legitimate grievances that workers could have on any given day.

But here’s the problem: The more we complain, the angrier we’re likely to feel. The angrier we feel, the less forgiving we’re likely to be. And the less forgiving we are, the more disengaged we’re going to become. 

This isn’t an empty platitude; there’s data to back this up. In Leadership IQ’s newest study, “The Links Between Self Forgiveness, Forgiving Others, and Employee Engagement,” we discovered that people who can forgive others are 42% more likely to be motivated to give 100% effort at work. We also learned, through a regression analysis, that 22% of an employee’s motivation to give 100% effort at work is driven by whether someone can eventually forgive the people who disappoint them. Unfortunately, only 12% of employees say that they effectively forgive others.

So how do you teach your people to be a bit more forgiving while still acknowledging that there are likely legitimate reasons to be annoyed and want changes to be made?  

Negative Spirals

First, when your folks start to enter a negative spiral, take note of whether they’re complaining about issues as a way of creating change, or they’re just idly griping.  

For example, imagine that your company changed their work-from-home day from Friday to Tuesday. There’s actually data that Tuesday is the day employees least want to work from home while Friday is their favorite day to work from home.

If people in a staff meeting are spending half-an-hour idly complaining, kvetching about the idiocy of the executives who instituted this policy change, they’re likely entering a negativity spiral where each successive grumble becomes more intense and bitter. The more negative the conversation becomes, the less forgiveness is possible, and the more motivation and engagement will suffer.

Paths Toward Change

By contrast, imagine that those same meeting participants spent 20 minutes discussing how to create a unified front and a cogent recommendation for a policy change. That’s a radically different experience. In this case, the complaints are merely a launching point for instituting a change based on a well-reasoned argument.

Article Continues Below

Your task as a leader is to see the difference between those two scenarios. When you see the latter change-focused scenario, that’s typically fine; if you support the change yourself, then simply guide the conversation and strengthen your case. But in the former scenario, with idle griping, you’ll want to tell your team, “Let’s focus on what we can control.”

That one simple phrase has almost magical powers to redirect conversations from emotionally-negative gripe-fests into productive change-focused planning sessions. There’s nothing wrong with complaining per se, but complaints need to be focused on making things better. Otherwise, they’re likely to become ever-increasing spirals of negativity, entrenching and hardening our discontent and thus making forgiveness nigh impossible.

There are times, of course, when it’s perfectly acceptable to give employees a little space to vent. But the key word in that sentence is “little.” I’ve seen countless meetings where the griping goes on for 15, 20, or even 30 minutes. Five minutes is an appropriate amount of time to vent; 30 minutes is a full-fledged negativity spiral.

If you can teach your leaders the difference between idle griping and advocating for change, you’ll have a huge impact on their ability to improve the motivation and engagement of their employees.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

Topics