Got a complaint about work? Or a dozen?
Don’t hold back. Letting it all out just might land you a promotion.
But there’s a critical caveat to it: You have to complain the right way — with grace, composure and some humility.
Instead of complaining for the typical reasons — it feels good to get it off the chest, poses minimal risk and it’s easy when there’s an open ear nearby — focus on complaining with purpose.
Here’s why you want to change the tune: Complaining actually harms the workplace – sending people, departments and processes down a spiral of negativity and poor results, according to research in The Harvard Business Review.
“Just as a fish may not even be aware of the water that surrounds it, you may not be aware of all of the complaints you hear and speak,” says author Will Bowen in his guidebook, A Complaint Free World. “Complaining is so much a part of who we are, it’s difficult to recognize what is and is not a complaint.”
Turn complaint into positive change
In fact, the average person complains 15-30 times a day, according to Bowen’s research.
That’s a lot of negativity that could be better spent on positive change — that leads to professional growth and advancement.
So, to complain effectively — bringing issues to the surface and getting them resolved in ways that benefit many and potentially promote yourself — you’ll want to try these tactics.
1. Stop whining
First things first, whining is not the same as complaining. Actually, whining is the enemy of complaining.
Whiners nag. Whiners frustrate others. Whiners get ignored.
The best way to avoid whining: Don’t complain to people who can’t help fix it. Take your complaint to someone who can address it with you. It could be the person at the heart of the issue — for instance, the colleague who often belittles you in meetings. Or it could be the person who can help you resolve it — perhaps your boss who has the authority to change things you immediately can’t.
Here’s where the promotion comes in, too: When you complain to the right person, offer to take the lead on what needs to be done.
2. Calculate the risk
Not all complaints are worth registering. It’s critical you don’t make mountains out of molehills — lest you be brandished the whiner.
Some complaints are your annoyances, and not issues that affect the populas — for instance, you hate the natural light that hits your desk mid-afternoon. Other complaints, you should just solve yourself — for instance, you hate the natural light that hits your desk … so you add blinds or move your desk.
To determine if making your complaint is worth the risk of annoying others or appearing to be a whiner, ask yourself:
- Is this a consistent issue that affects people, processes and/or progress?
- Is this issue worth risking the harmony of our people, processes and/or progress?
- How will the person or people I bring the issue to respond?
- Will my complaint — and eventual solution — better people, processes and/or progress?
3. Sandwich it
Once you’ve determined it’s an issue worth a constructive complaint, try the sandwich approach to bring it to light.
Start it with a positive statement, followed by the complaint, then wrap it up with another positive statement.
For instance, “I’ve heard great things about your projections for this quarter. But I can’t see where my department fits in on the rewards when goals are met, considering we support two teams involved in the potential commission. I’d like us to stay involved and supportive. How can we work together to bring my team in on the effort?”
4. Remain direct, transparent
Whether you open a conversation about an issue with the sandwich or not, you want to be direct and transparent.
To do that:
- come in armed with potential solutions
- stick closely to just facts, data points and research
- know and share the impact the issue has on the business
- lay out what you’ve tried so far, and
- be open to alternative solutions you didn’t identify ahead of time.
5. Make yours a me, not we, problem
Other people — particularly your boss — accept construcitve complaints more easily when they aren’t culpable. Point is, don’t point fingers at anyone but yourself.
What to avoid: Using extremes and definitives.
Extremes put others on the defense and include “always” and “never”: “You always do this …” or “You never do that …”
Definitives alienate others who don’t see things like you and include “obvious” and “clearly”: “It’s obvious we have a problem” or “Clearly, you need to do something about …”
Instead, try to use more inclusive words and phrases such as “we” and “and” (in lieu of “but”).
For example, “We‘ve had a great start on this project, and I see more potential to improve it. I have some ideas on how we can take it to the next level and blow away the client …”
6. Choose the right time and tone
Seemingly unimportant, logistics are actually important when you constructively complain. First, you want to pick a good time. Don’t bring up issues — unless they’re about safety or an emergency — when your boss or colleagues face a crisis or setback. They won’t be receptive to much.
Secondly, maintain a tone that’s not defensive or accusatory. Instead, keep it professional by maintaining a calm demeanor and factual standpoint. Be willing to listen to counterpoints in equal parts to give your perspective.
The best way to set the stage for success when you have a legitimate complaint and idea for solution: Create common ground early. For instance, “We both care about the success of this, so I’d like to talk with you about …” or “I know this is important to both of us, so I want to address ….”
Finally, to note: As the manager, if your employees bring complaints about inappropriate behavior, harassment or bias to you, respond immediately and work with HR to handle it.