Converting Complaints to Positive Leadership


Thank you to the 231 of you who weighed in on my survey on complaining last week! I am afraid I botched the design a little,* but the core data remains fascinating:  People who responded guesstimated that they complain between 14 and 18 times a day.

My inquiry was fueled by two essential leadership truths : (1) Emotional intelligence begins with self awareness, and (2) Positive leadership generates dramatically better results — both in terms of group productivity and group satisfaction.  Thus, if you want to lead effectively, it behooves you to heighten awareness of the degree to which you are (often unconsciously) introducing or amplifying negativity in the system. Psychological research indicates that exposure to complaining generates stress in others, and, compounding this effect, complaining tends to generate mimicry. So, complaining fuels complaining and complaining generates stress.

So, how do you stop the downward cycle of complaining? Go first!

1. Pay attention to your mind.  Simply notice when you are about to complain. See: you have a choice.

2. Stop.

3. Ask: Is this complaint actionable?  Complaints deal with real problems.  And while complaining (or whining) seldom changes things yet brings people down, there are two constructive ways to translate a complaint.  First, simply share information in an objective way.  For example, are you sure the IT department knows an application isn’t working? Do your kids know how upsetting it is to you when they don’t thank their grandparents? Does your boss know this is the third time in a week she has deferred a decision that would help you to get her work done?

The second constructive way to process a complaint is to turn it into a request. In the examples above, it would mean explicitly asking the IT people to address something, specifically asking your child to send a thank you note to Grandma today, and asking your boss if she could please come to a conclusion on the dangling matter so you can move the work forward. It’s easier to complain than to share information, or make a request for someone to help us, but whining seldom changes anything.

A final point and option are key.  Often complaining only makes us feel worse, less powerful and more victimized. So, the final constructive option is to gain perspective by asking:  “Does this really matter to me? Is this traffic, this messy kid, this indecision on my boss’ part really where I want to keep my focus? Or can I choose to focus instead on what is good and right and positive?” In my own Lenten commitment to stop complaining, I’ve found myself starting out, “I can’t believe….” and finishing what I started as a complaint with “how fortunate I am!” And I mean it.

As always, I’d love your thoughts – like last week’s two wonderful comments — as you

Lead with your best self,



* People guesstimated that they complained 18.4 times per week. After a day of awareness, they guesstimated the amount was 14.7.  The “botch” was that my two questions allowed two completely different interpretations.  My intent was not to get people to see that they could make a difference and thus guesstimate that they would complain less.  Instead, I was thinking they would have the observational experience I had: “Wow, once I watch my mind and mouth, I realize that I complain way more than I thought.”  It is possible that others – unlike me – actually realized that they don’t complain as much as they think. But I suspect they were not just reporting on what their behavior was but were reporting on what they would like it to become. The latter, of course, is the purpose of my writing on this topic, but was not the purpose of my data-gathering.