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The Ten Commandments of Complaining


We all do it, and for good reason. The newspaper delivery guy throws the paper in the mud. The clerk put us on hold while she (probably) keeps talking to her boyfriend. The cashier forgets to put the eggs in the cart. The credit card company slaps a late fee on us because we went one second beyond the due date. We complain when the other guy’s at fault. We complain when it’s our fault and the other guy won’t give us a break. Businesses complain about customers; customers complain about businesses. Bosses hear nothing but complaints from workers. Workers hear nothing but complaints from their bosses. Both bosses and workers complain that no one ever listens to their complaints anyway.

Before yelling to stop this bus so you can get off, I need to remind you that complaining is not all bad. In fact, complaining is the trigger to kick things into action. It all starts with the baby fussing over a wet diaper, an empty stomach or an irritation of some sort. All of a sudden, the pitiful little wah-wah’s unleash an avalanche of clean, dry clothes, milk and soothing pats and cooing voices. Although his cognitive processes are not developed fully enough to analyze this chain of events, this formula gets hard wired into his brain: Need + Complaints = Satisfaction. Later, her baby teeth begin to break through the skin and she cries from the pain. And, just like clockwork, here come the soft hands of mercy to rub her gums and rock her to sleep…or at least to a state of relative calm. It works too when he squeals from bumping his head on the table, yelps from the bite of a sibling or bawls when daddy puts him down and rushes off to work. Each time, something that feels good, tastes good or makes the pain go away rewards his protest. He’s hooked. Complaining is the way to get what he wants.

Then, something starts going wrong with the process. He cries, as usual, when he wants more candy, a shiny new toy or the freedom to run out in the street. Nothing happens. She cries louder, but she hears a strange, unfriendly sound in reply. Thinking that the stooges who always answer his complaints don’t hear or understand him, he throws his complaint into an ear-splitting high gear, falls to the ground and kicks his legs. Instead of the usual hands of comfort reaching out to him, however, rough hands grab him and yank him to his feet and plop him in a chair facing the corner. Hey! What in the world is going on? Her learned behavior that had always worked in the past now delivers a very different result. As he matures, most of these dilemmas work themselves out, but even as an adult, a certain level of residual annoyance always surfaces when his or her complaining fails to yield a satisfactory outcome.

What do we take away from these hard lessons of infancy and childhood? Complaining about some things may work, but not about everything. The way we complain about things, even when we have legitimate gripes, may produce mixed results. These factors, along with the reasons, targets and frequency of complaints combine to bring either success or failure in getting our way. None of us ever really stop complaining—we just get better at it. At least, we ought to since complaining eats up enormous amounts of energy, has the potential to harm worker morale, and often negatively impacts job performance. In fact, the nature and number of complaints accurately peg the maturity of the complainer. Consider the following guidelines to smarter complaining.

1. Thou shalt not complain about unimportant things. Don’t waste your time protesting trivialities. If you do, people will think you are a big baby and will tend to pay less attention to you the next time you voice a complaint. For example, do cars parked on the lines instead of between the lines annoy you? Ignore them. Does a fellow employee who laughs too loudly get under your skin? Ah, ah, ah—not a word! Does a boss who won’t let you leave one minute before the end of your shift send you over the top? Shrug it off. Thousands of little things like these affect all of us in the human condition. Let them slide without making a scene.

2. Thou shalt not complain about things which cannot be changed. The weather, the traffic, the price of gasoline, the job location…why complain if you know nothing can be done about them? If you hired in knowing that the job was tough and the hours were long, then your complaints about the tough job and long hours lack merit. If you agreed to a long list of requirements that applied to your position, you forfeited your right to complain about the requirements. Certain realities define the nature of our jobs. Unless you have a magic wand to wave, it is reasonable for you to accept these parameters without complaining and stay positive. Railing against fixed realities hurts you and the people you work with in many different ways.

3. Thou shalt not complain in an offensive manner. Even if you have a legitimate complaint, coming across like an ogre spoils your chance at success. Venting doesn’t address the problem. Real change calls for a calm approach that shows respect and reason. Make sure your attitude is in full control before you open your mouth.

4. Thou shalt not complain at a bad time. Every job runs into peak activity time when interruptions can’t be allowed. Come in early, stay after hours or choose a lull in action to register your complaint. Also, pay attention to kind of day your boss is having. If you know he or she is stressed out, you’re more likely to cause a scene rather than find a solution.

5. Thou shalt not complain to the wrong people. If you have a problem with your boss, do not take your complaint to a fellow employee, a customer or client. It doubles the difficulty, because now your boss has a problem with two persons instead of one. Do not excuse backbiting by saying you had to talk to someone to get it off your chest. If needed, run your complaint by a person totally unconnected to your job so there’s no danger of interference.

6. Thou shalt not complain without ceasing. Fussing about anything and everything all the time gets really old. At first, bosses try to listen and respond to the complaints, but when they suspect that nothing ever pleases such people, they get increasingly irritated at them. It soon becomes clear where the real problem lies. Chronic complainers go through life with a huge blind spot—themselves!

7. Thou shalt complain about real health and safety issues. You are not overstepping your bounds to raise issues about health and safety. These problems must be addressed immediately for obvious reasons. Also, the legal, financial and public image welfare of the business may be threatened if an incident caused by negligence leads to injury or illness. If nothing is done, complain again or take it to a higher authority.

8. Thou shalt complain about unfair treatment. Discrimination or bigotry on the job must not be tolerated. If you feel that you have been victimized by unjust treatment or decisions, talk to the proper people to get it resolved. Even if such situations are uncomfortable or require a lengthy process to make it right, your welfare and the workplace morale is at stake.

9. Thou shalt complain if reasonable, human expectations are not met. Every employee has a right to expect clean, sanitary workplace, a work area kept at a right temperature, functional restrooms properly stocked and a secure environment. When these basic needs are lacking, a complaint is in order.

10. Thou shalt complain if you are prevented from performing your job. Any situation with personnel or workplace conditions that interferes with your job performance needs to be reported. Problems that go unresolved harm the worker, the customer and the reputation of the business.

Actually, many of the issues that arise in the work environment don’t warrant the label of a complaint. They may simply be small problems that need to be pointed out so they can be easily resolved. Sometimes, however, major conflicts do occur that require everyone’s attention. You should have enough self respect and good will toward your business and employer to talk about such conflicts. Many full-blown crises could be avoided if the right people would feel free to address the issues when they are first noticed. Complaints that get taken care of promptly and properly mean contented workers, happy bosses and satisfied customers.


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