Stop Complaining – There’s a Better Way

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Complain (\kəm-ˈplān\) possibly from the Latin com “with” plangere “to beat the breast.”

  1. to express dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, censure, resentment, or grief; find fault
  2. to tell of one’s pains, ailments, etc.
  3. to make a formal accusation

We complain a lot, and we all believe we have good reasons. From changes in technology to the smell of tuna sandwich in the break room, you’ll find someone with a gripe in every cubicle. But is anyone listening?  What do we really want to see come from our complaints?

Are you effective when you complain? Complete this sentence:

When I complain, I get:

  1. Results
  2. Ignored
  3. A lot of grief
  4. A stomach ache

If you answered “a”, skip to the next post; you’re excused. But if you answered anything else, keep reading. If you can’t get over what’s bugging you, you can at least improve your technique.

First, stop making complaints. I looked up the word “whine” and its definition included three mentions of the word complaint, including this: “To utter in a high-pitched nasal sound, as in a complaint.” Not a good look on anyone.

Words matter, so let’s stop making complaints and start airing grievances. What’s the difference? Intent, for one thing. A grievance is a professional assessment of a situation that implies a wrong, an injustice – something to be corrected. It implies you’ve given this some thought, and that you expect a reply and corrective action.

A complaint:

  • is hasty, often made in the moment (see grumbling)
  • is emotional (usually ill-tempered) and based on personal preference or perception
  • makes people defensive
  • can be ignored if delivered by a chronic “complainer”

A grievance:

  • is carefully thought out
  • is based on logic
  • makes people aware of an injustice or wrong that should be righted
  • requires action or response

Airing a grievance requires some thought and, by extension, delays the process. Time and distance may even help you decide that the issue is not so problematic after all.  As a manager, one of my most effective responses to complaints was to ask my staff member to put it in writing. Having to reason through the problem and its impact often helps someone develop perspective – or come up with a solution on their own.

One other significant difference between a complaint and a grievance is that a complaint is often issued to the most convenient target, not the most effective. How often have you been on the receiving end of a complaint you could not fix (and may not even care about)?

A grievance is delivered to the person(s) with the power to make decisions and find solutions. If you’re unwilling to talk to the person with power over your grievance, perhaps you should rethink how important the issue is to you.

Finally, a grievance allows you to follow up. You’re not merely airing your complaint again; you’re checking in to ask about progress on the solution. If you receive action, be sure to acknowledge and thank the person who helped change things for the better. It’s not only lonely at the top, it’s often thankless.  You can be the change you want to see, as well.

Checklist for a grievance:

  • Have I got all the facts right? Is my information accurate and my source reliable?
  • Have I made my case clearly and logically?
  • Have I avoided provocative or emotionally charged language that might undermine my case or my credibility?
  • Have I stated my case to someone with authority to take action on the issue?
  • Am I willing to become a part of the solution if necessary?
  • Am I willing to accept with grace an answer that is not what I wanted to hear?

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”

Benjamin Franklin

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