When I first broached this topic to coworkers, the reactions were strong.
"We complain about work because it's work!" said one.
"If it were fun, it wouldn't be work," said another.
"Work is the one one thing you can whine about at a family dinner," said a third. "Better than politics or religion, anyway."
Researchers say we complain approximately 15 to 30 times a day, which if you spread it equally between the (approximately) 16 hours of wakefulness we enjoy, means we complain every 32 minutes.
So why exactly do we end up complaining so often about something we invest so much of our time and effort in?
What is Complaining Exactly?
Before we get there though, let's look at what complaining is.
Complaining is the action of verbally expressing dissatisfaction or annoyance with how things are going. It's a statement of negativity that stems from how you see the world.
Not sure if you're one of those people who are always complaining at work? Here's a test:
- Do you often feel none of the work you (or others) do seems good enough?
- Do you constantly expect the worst to happen?
- Do you often wonder why some people in the office seem too cheerful?
If you answer yes to any of the above, then you definitely need to read on.
Why Do We Complain About Work?
To examine the reasons why work complaints are a repeating chorus in our daily lives, we need to look at stress, habits, focus, and motives.
We Complain Because We're Stressed
Let's face it, there's a lot of stress in the workplace. In our 2015 Work Management report, we asked over 1,400 office workers across a wide variety of industries and job functions about the main sources of stress in the workplace. The top five were:
- Lack of information/context
- Problems with task prioritization
- Unrealistic project goals
- Deadlines being moved around
- Unclear leadership
Takeaway: These five stressors aren't going away anytime soon. And stress requires an outlet. Complaining is one of them.
We Complain Because We're Stuck in a Loop
The danger of constantly complaining? It's easy to get stuck in a rut.
In 1949, a Canadian psychologist named Donald O. Hebb published a book titled The Organization of Behavior, laying out his theory on how our brains process stimuli and form habits.
Basically, when we hold a thought or experience a feeling, massive amounts of neurons are triggered. These neurons then get together and become a neural network. In simple terms, "neurons that fire together, wire together."
So if you complain often enough and make it a habit to see situations from a negative point-of-view, you won't stop. Your brain, which has been trained to see this negativity by force of habit, will keep you stuck in the same groove — at least, until you consciously choose to get out.
Takeaway: We complain because it's a habit. The more we do it, the more we keep doing it.
We Complain Because We Focus on...
It may help to realize that the type of complaining we most often do is dependent on what our negativity focuses on.
- When we focus on ourselves, the complaints tend to revolve around how our work is not appreciated, or how no one understands our stress, workload, or deadlines. It comes from a position of self-pity. "I'm so overworked and underpaid!"
- When we focus on others, complaints tend to be judgmental. We might complain about someone to ridicule their incompetence, their lack of talent or poise, their inability to live up to standards. We do this to elicit agreement from listeners.
- When we focus on our fears of the future, we complain about imminent disaster, like a doomsayer who sees nothing but catastrophe ahead. This is the complaint that appears when things go wrong and aims to find other like-minded people with whom to talk about the impending failure.
Takeaway: What you focus on determines what you vocalize.
We Complain Because We Want X to Happen
Another way to analyze why you complain about work involves dissecting your motives.
In her book Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers: How to Negotiate Work Drama to Get More Done, author Linda Byars Swindling lists five different types of complainers based on motive. These are:
- The Whiner: a complainer who vents about his personal difficulties in order to elicit sympathy from others. It will typically be an expression of how unfair life is. "I'm always so misunderstood around here. The boss never appreciates my efforts."
- The Complicator: a complainer who speaks out because he dislikes change or instability and wants to delay change by introducing drama. "Why are wasting time on this new tool, when we haven't even fixed our own process?"
- The Prima Donna: a complainer who expresses negativity so others will notice the work he or she is doing. "I'm way too overloaded; I'm tired of wearing all these hats!"
- The Controller: a complainer who tries to gain total control over a chaotic situation because work must be done. "You're taking too long, do it my way or we'll never make the deadline!"
- The Toxic: a complainer who explodes or shakes people up to further their own agenda. "This campaign sucks! We have to change it."
Takeaway: We complain in order to get something.
How to Get Away from Complaining
With all that under-the-hood examination of why we complain, what can we actually do to stop? Here are some actionable tips to get you started on a more mindful, positive journey.
Tip: Change One Word to Become More Grateful
Author and mindfulness speaker James Clear has the perfect formula for combating the complaining attitude: practice gratefulness by changing one word.
Instead of saying you "have" to do something, try saying you "get" to do it.
When you choose to see your tasks as onerous duties that grate upon your daily life, you will complain. "I have to do this, but I deserve better!" "I have to work here, but they're not paying me enough!"
But what if you trade that for a viewpoint of thankfulness? "I get to work with these colleagues," "I get to help these customers," "I get to contribute to the company mission." Suddenly, you see silver linings and glasses half full.
Trade your viewpoint for a positive one.
Tip: Make a Complaint Sandwich
“Psychologically, it’s really unhealthy to squelch complaints,” says Guy Winch PhD, psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem.
“By not complaining aloud, it doesn’t mean the dissatisfaction has gone away. You’re just not voicing it.”
So how do you express it in a way that's healthy and might just lead to a constructive change? You sandwich it in between two more positive statements that invite the other person to more readily accept the complaint you've sandwiched in. Watch the video to see how it's done:
Tip: Speak in Specific, Actionable Terms
Are your complaints too general or vague? If so, you're simply venting destructively instead of expressing yourself in a more constructive manner. Why not choose to verbalize your complaints in more specific terms so that they can become actionable?
Rather than, "This design sucks!" go for, "This creative asset needs a younger design to make it more appealing to its target market." Instead of, "I hate this job!" say, "I can't stand all these unrealistic deadlines being forced upon me!"
Specific complaints can be acted upon. (Ideally by you.) Vague complaints simply lash out and affect the morale of the people around you.
Tip: Shun the Negative Tribe
Like viruses and enthusiasm, negativity is infectious. One way you can stop complaining is to stop hanging out with all the negative ninnies in your company.
Yes, I know they're fun to be with when you need people to commiserate with on your boss' latest unreasonable demand. Or when you simply want to scoff at something that happened in a meeting. But hanging out with these people enforces and even strengthens the habit of complaining.
You're not going to get yourself off the drug if you hang out with the pushers. Instead, go find some happy people. And if there aren't any, go find the new hires! Get energized by their enthusiasm and their sincere excitement to be working at your company. They will do wonders for your mood.
Tip: To Break the Habit, Simply Stop
We mentioned that complaining can become a habit. And like all habits, it is totally under your control. So you *could* just stop complaining if you chose to. There is no cold sweat when you go cold turkey. (Though you'll feel an itch to start whining.)
Bob Newhart best explains how to get over your whiny complaints in this GIF:
Are You Ready to Stop Complaining?
Now go read this article so you can start creating a more positive routine for yourself: The Unexpected Benefits of Shaking Up Your Work Routine.