Far from being a destructive force in the workplace, research shows that complaining at work can help break down silos and strengthen teams.
According to the popular view, complaining at work is an unhealthy practice. It damages morale and contributes to a toxic culture. But new research has found that in certain contexts communal griping has a positive impact in the workplace.
“Complaining is a way of connecting with other people,” says Bond Business School assistant professor of organisational behaviour Libby Sander.
This is also what University of Melbourne lecturer Dr Vanessa Pouthier discovered when she spent more than 12 months researching cross-occupational teams in the palliative care and oncology services of a large hospital in the American Midwest.
Pouthier observed dozens of care planning meetings between doctors, nurses, social workers and case managers during her research, which yielded an unexpected result: whinging at work can be beneficial.
Complaining, she discovered, was not simply the expression of dissatisfaction or negativity, but instead served as an “identification ritual” and an important team-building tool. This type of complaining occurs in a formulaic way.
“A team member will invite colleagues to commiserate with them about sources of stress and frustration that they know their colleagues share,” Pouthier explains. “For example, a difficult patient, or a difficult family member, or the organisation’s bureaucratic rules, or healthcare professionals in other services whose decisions and actions impact that particular team.”
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The effects of griping could be seen in different ways. First, it helped members of the group process negative emotions; a crucial coping mechanism in a stressful environment. “This is a place of work where there are many reasons to feel stressed,” Pouthier notes. “Death and dying is all around you, and you’re overworked.”
Importantly, it also helped forge bonds between stakeholders from different occupational backgrounds who don’t always see eye to eye. Case managers, for instance, are responsible for ensuring a patient progresses through the system at the right pace and resources are not wasted on their care.
“You can see how their role can create some challenges for the other healthcare professionals [in the team] who only care about spending as much time and resources [on a patient] as they can,” Pouthier says. “Those rituals create bonds that make them feel like they’re part of the same community and face the same forms of adversity. They feel more alike than they thought they were.”
What this type of complaining does not do is solve problems. “That’s not what it’s for – it’s not meant to create change,” Pouthier emphasises. In this context, collective complaining is a “statement of kinship”. Topics most commonly discussed were aspects of the job that were both irritating and immutable: “We always face difficult patients. We always face difficult family members. We won’t change the bureaucracy.”
How not to complain
Like any ritual, whinging has conventions that were closely followed by the teams, Pouthier reveals. Complaining about healthcare professionals in other teams was acceptable and, for some, “might be a way of indirectly griping about your own colleagues”.
Interestingly, she never witnessed internal complaining. “They don’t gripe about team members – ever. There’s a rule around this. If someone complains about a colleague, people will just not engage – that’s how you know it’s inappropriate.”
Different types of complaining
Complaining falls into three broad categories, Sander says. There’s dissatisfaction, where people express general discontent; venting, where someone blows off steam after, say, a frustrating encounter with a colleague or client; and instrumental complaining, where “the idea is to try to get a problem solved”.
While whinging is not intended to create change, it does sometimes act as an empowering tool, Sander adds. Complaining can help people vent, but it can also create a collective energy within a team that becomes a catalyst for change. “They get angry together,” she says. “The communal experience of griping sometimes emboldens team members to challenge other teams or healthcare professionals on the decisions they are making.”
“A lot of the time ... people don’t feel they have the opportunity to voice their concerns.” Dr Vanessa Pouthier, University of Melbourne
However, not all complaining is constructive. In a Harvard Business Review article, Peter Bregman, CEO of US-based leadership consultancy Bregman Partners, argues that most complaining wastes time and creates unpleasant side effects. “It creates factions, prevents or delays – because it replaces – productive engagement, reinforces and strengthens dissatisfaction, riles up others, breaks trust, and, potentially, makes the complainer appear negative,” he writes.
Complaining, Bregman maintains, amplifies the initial problem and achieves nothing. Instead, he suggests going straight to the source of your frustration and addressing the issue directly. Sander offers similar advice: “Like any other issue in the workplace, the best thing to do is to approach the person involved and talk about the effect that it’s having.” Most times, she says, people appreciate the honest feedback.
Sander believes employers can minimise toxic complaining by making employees feel valued and heard. “A lot of the time that is what the issue is about – people don’t feel they have the opportunity to voice their concerns,” she says. “Conducting employee surveys, giving regular feedback to team members, making sure there are regular team meetings and that we are addressing problems in the organisation can all help.”
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