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Complaining at Work Can Help—If Done Correctly

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Mar 28, 2023

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Complaining can actually help one's career, The Wall Street Journal reported, but only done the right way.

While keeping one's resentments to bottled up may make things worse, saying something to the right people can alleviate issues.

San Francisco-area executive coach Dina Denham Smith advises her clients to approach their bosses with fact-based potential solutions and try to demonstrate how they have taken the initiative. “You really don’t want to come in as, ‘Woe is me,’” she told the journal.

University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Jim Detert advised avoiding definitive or triggering phrases, such as "You never do this," which could antagonize the recipient of one's suggestions or solutions. “You lose credibility because now you’ve sort of exposed yourself as exaggerating or ignoring inconvenient data,” he said.

Other problematic moves include complaining about co-workers, other departments, company policies and personal issues. “We’re your workplace, not your babysitter,” Ted Blosser, chief executive of training software maker WorkRamp, told the Journal.

As for managers, they need to to keep conversations with workers confined to the actual workplace environment, he said.

Complaining can be a performance enhancer when presented to one's superiors ,rather than one's peers, according to Darden's Detert. A recent study by researchers including Detert found a 10 percent decline in performance for sales employees at an insurance company who complained to their peers about problems. On the other hand, those who took their issues to their bosses increased performance increased by up to 15 percent. Detert attributed that to these employees’ bringing their problems to someone who could do something about it.

Of course, complaining has its negative consequences, as Matt Plummer found when he made negative remarks after being denied a promotion at a consulting firm. Though he subsequently earned the promotion, he told the Journal that he was ignored for months by the senior leader to whom he complained. He now heads his own corporate and coaching training firm.

Scientist Adam Steel would rehearse his arguments during his commute. “I would have these kinds of fictional arguments,” he told the Journal, sometimes realizing his concerns were not worth pursuing. At the office, he would consult some of his peers to determine if he were the only one affected. He would then decide whether to pursue his complaints or not. If he did, he would speak up, but calmly.

“So much depends on how you do it,” he said.