Workers tend to complain about their companies for much the same reasons they complain about the weather. They are not so much trying to change things as they are drawing themselves together by affirming their shared experiences via commiseration.
Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour John Weeks examines the curious rituals associated with cultures of corporate complaint. After studying the interpersonal dynamics in play at a large British retail bank, Weeks concluded, "complaints can sometimes be more powerful than the traditional tools companies use to boost alignment and loyalty, such as corporate visioning and mission statements". *
Weeks describes the quite unintended upside of the motivational videos that were sent to the bank's branches as part of a major rollout of its new corporate vision. The slick presentations, which featured senior bank executives alongside a well-known BBC newsreader, brought managers and staff members together as they mocked everything from the clothes, to the waffling of their higher-ups on screen.
The author reflects on certain facets of how a company's culture is typically internalised. People tend to learn not just how things are done, but also how things should or should not be moaned about. "Employees learn what is safe to complain about (nothing too sensitive), to whom it is safe to complain (no one too senior), when it is safe to complain (not too publicly), and what is taboo."
This clearly raises some intriguing questions about the deeper meaning of expressed staff dissatisfaction. When the rules above are adhered to, they generally result in innocuous social complaints that may have their uses - but providing bases for constructive change is not among them. The challenge for managers then clearly becomes how to distinguish between "recreational negativity" and constructive criticism. In Weeks' view, this is the best way for decision-makers to know "where not to put their problem-solving energies". Many would likely subscribe to his view that "there is nothing people enjoy complaining about more than a meddling manager who runs around trying to fix things that no one really wants or expects to be fixed."
* John R. Weeks; "Unpopular Culture: The Ritual of Complaint in a British Bank", Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003
Harvard Business Review, May 2004