First class coach

In my department, everyone moans all the time about almost everything.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Their relentless pessimism is not only counter-productive, it's getting me down. What can I do about it?

Constant complaining used to be viewed as something of a British disease, particularly where organisational hierarchy was strongest. Trade unions were often typecast as professional moaners, searching each new event for further evidence of the conspiracy by 'them' to do 'us' down, and then to complain about it.

Moaning can infect whole departments, or even companies. There is a sense of fraternity in shared moaning - we're all in it together, victims of the system - and misery loves company. The net effect of a group collectively building a negative picture, where everything is cast in a grey light, can debilitate an organisation.

Endemic moaning is a real enemy to change, preserving the status quo rather than moving things on. Like most other bad habits, carping on can be a hard habit to break, especially if it has become part of the culture.

Sometimes a shift of geography can provide the discontinuity that prompts change. A persistent offender re-sited to sit among the more optimistic can find his new neighbours don't play the game and so gives up, except when reunited with his old workmates.

Sometimes the moaning is the result of unrealistic expectations of work and the level of satisfaction it can provide. For those who have only ever worked in one place, it is difficult to establish a benchmark and it's not surprising that the grass may appear greener elsewhere.

But moaning is just one facet of complaining. Appropriate complaint has achieved significant change in all sorts of areas by bringing to attention unsatisfactory situations. So being an effective complainer is a skill we're often encouraged to develop.

In this lies the potential solution to your problem. Perhaps there is substance to the gripes of department members, legitimate criticism of things that are sub-optimal. You can test this hypothesis in this way: convene a meeting and call it an improvement workshop (or similar). Invite the moaners and other, more positive souls. Ask them to come equipped with their suggestions for the way things could be made better. Give each person a chance to state succinctly what they see as a problem area and to suggest what could be done to remedy it. Allow others to contribute to build a solution that is appropriate, workable and acceptable.

Agree a specific action list, where possible giving responsibility for making improvements to those most vociferous about the problem. Try to make sure you avoid committing anyone not present to action, though it's OK to task members of the group to involve others in moving towards solutions.

Agree to meet again at a specific time in the near future to review progress and stick to it. Celebrate progress so that those who have made an effort feel appreciated for it.

Of course, it is quite possible that among the sources of dissatisfaction cited by your department will be things that are not susceptible to change, for sound economic or social reasons, or because they are beyond anyone's control. For example, most people are expected to work harder for the same pay as they received in kinder economic times, so that their business can survive. The hard reality is that, if individuals are unable to accept this, they may never be happy in the organisation. They have three choices: adjust their expectations, leave, or keep moaning. However, having identified these options, they are unlikely to be respected by their colleagues if they choose the third.

Some clients of mine at a recent workshop, having fully aired their grievances and come up with some smart ways to increase their effectiveness, decided that stopping the prevalent negativity would be an important element in sustaining momentum. Their solution? A 'moan box' with a fine for anybody falling back into old, familiar ways. The proceeds were put towards a department social event, the lack of which had been the substance of one of their previous complaints.

A question for you: when you complain about your colleagues' moaning, are you joining the ranks of the moaners? Maybe what constitutes moaning is a matter of perception, a verb that declines thus: I level justified criticisms, you complain, he moans. On the other hand, like Pollyanna, you may be subject to relentless cheerfulness, which may be appreciated by your boss but some others may find deeply depressing, and a cause for complaint!

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