Complaining is like chili powder—a little goes a long way. Sometimes a recipe just cries out for it—say, an eggy thing or a slow-cooking stew. Forfeit it and you’ve lost a certain cohesion that could have taken your dish from good-to-great.
Same deal with workplaces. You’ve got your base flavour types—your salt, pepper and parselys—employees who accommodate themselves to almost any situation. They form the majority of the staff. If the boss asks, “Hey, Joe, how’s it going?” Joe says, “Great boss. Just great.” Whether it’s going great or going lousy. Joe gets a pat on the back and the status quo is saved once again.
But groups harbour other types too. One of them is the pepper pot. Someone who’s always quick to point out where things are not going so great. Sometimes this type is labelled a ‘complainer’ and is shunned by others. And that’s too bad because, as a new study shows, complaining at work is a good thing. It can break the ice, increase group cohesion, and lead to creative problem-solving.
The study’s author, Dr. Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina, acknowledges that certain people are temperamentally disposed to complaining. They enjoy it and reject offers of help. These types of complainers, unsurprisingly, have a negative effect on the workplace. Work becomes the focus for all of the wrongs ever done to them.
However, there is also the authentic complainer, or even the whistleblower, who points out serious problems in the workplace. According to Dr. Kowalski, the workplaces with the highest employee morale and collegiality are those that encourage respectful complaining. When people air their complaints, she says, they receive validation and are more likely to move closer to a solution. Totalitarian environments are the ones most likely to ban complaining.
I once worked for a company that had a rather low standard of office hygiene. All the office floors had regulation wall-to-wall carpeting in a hue that could be described as Baby Spit Beige. The carpets were never professionally cleaned and over the years they built up a flinty crust of muffin and sandwich crumbs, spilt coffees, pencil shavings, hair and skin particles, dirt and dust. Not surprisingly, various micro- and not so micro-organisms called it home. If it were summer and you wore capris or a skirt to the office, by quitting time there would likely be an assortment of tiny red spots on your ankles where the carpet mites had dined.
Clearly this was something to complain about. My staff complained to me. I complained to my boss. And, hush, listen… the sound of the whispering wind. Several more months passed and when nothing happened, it was Norma Rae-time: No more buggy assaults; we work from home. This time the complaint travelled up to the president. The next week-end, all the old carpets were ripped out and new ones installed on all the floors.
Complainers get a bad rap. But, the next time you feel like complaining about complainers, remember this: they can also get you clean carpets.