Top 10 reasons why constant complaining is so toxic in the workplace

Workplace complainers

Back when I was still a geek (I was a software developer for a small
consulting company in my second job out of university) I had a boss
that was… shall we say unpopular. My co-workers and I hated his
guts and we complained ceaselessly about him.

It got to the point where we couldn’t start a meeting, have
lunch in the cafeteria, or even go out for a beer without spending half
an hour complaining about him.

We whined about his attitude, his stupidity, his meddling, his
spinelessness … hell, even his dress sense came under fire. But
then again, he is the only manager who has ever interviewed me wearing
a narrow 80s-style purple, fake-leather tie.

But did we ever tell him? Nooooooo! While we were bitching and moaning to ourselves, he blithely went on as usual because no one ever complained to him. Which might’ve made sense when you think about it…

Looking back, I’m not sure that complaining to him would have
worked – I think he was incorrigible – but one thing is for damn sure:
Out bitching about it, fun though it may have been, did not improve
things one little bit.

Because that kind of chronic complaining, justified or not, in the
workplace leads to no good. In fact, in can be downright toxic and can
make a department or even a whole company a terrible place to work.

Here’s why constant complaining is so bad:

1: It makes things look worse than they are
When people complain, they focus only on what’s wrong. Things may
be mostly fine in the company, but complainers only talk about the
problems, annoyances and peeves they perceive.

If things in a company are 80% good and 20% bad and you spend most
of your time thinking and talking about the bad 20% – the situation
will look a lot worse than it really is.

2: It becomes a habit
The more you complain, the easier it gets. In the end, everything is
bad, every situation is a problem, every co-worker is a jerk and
nothing is good.

The more you focus on the negative, the harder it gets to switch into a positive mindset.

3: You get what you focus on
According to Wikipedia, Confirmation bias is:

…a tendency to search for or interpret new
information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoid
information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.

In other words, what you already believe influences your perception
of everything around you. That’s why constant complaining makes
you see everything in a negative light, because your subconscious mind
tries to make new observation fit with what you already know.

4: It leads to onedownmanship
A complaining session might go something like this:

The other day, my boss came in 5 minutes before I was
leaving and asked me to finish two huge projects for him. I had to stay
two hours and missed my football game.

Yeah, well my boss told me to work this weekend AND the next.

Hah, that’s nothing! My boss…

This type of interaction rewards the person with the worst story who can complain the loudest. Not healthy!

5: It makes people despondent
Not only does constant complaining make you see the workplace as worse
than it really is, but because you’re constantly hearing stories
of how bad things are and how they’re constantly getting worse it
also destroys all hope that things can get better.

This of course makes people less likely to take action to improve
their situation, because everybody knows it’s doomed to fail
anyway.

6: It kills innovation
Because the situations looks so hopeless, people become less creative
and innovative. What’s the point of coming up with ideas and
implementing them – it’s never going to work anyway.

Also, chronic complainers are the first to shoot down any new idea.

7: It favors negative people
The way to get status among complainers is to be the most negative. To
be the one who sees everything in the most negative light.

Any attempt to be positive or cheerful will be shot down and
optimists will be accused of being Pollyanna, naive and unrealistic.

8: It promotes bad relationships
People who complain together unite against the world and can create
strong internal relationships based on this. But these relationships
are based mostly on negative experiences. That’s not healthy.

It also means that you can only continue to be a part of the group
if you can continue to complain, miring you even deeper in a complaint
mindset.

9: It creates cliques
Being positive, optimistic and appreciative makes you more open towards
other people – no matter who they are. It becomes easy to connect to
co-workers in other departments, projects or divisions.

Complaining, on the other hand, makes people gather in cliques with
their fellow complainers where they can be critical and suspicious of
everybody else.

10: Pessimism is bad for you
Psychologist Martin Seligman showed in his groundbreaking research in
positive psychology that people who see the world in a positive light
have a long list of advantages, including:

  • They live longer
  • They’re healthier
  • They have more friends and better social lives
  • They enjoy life more
  • They’re more successful at work

We sometimes think that pessimists and complainers have the edge
because they see problems sooner but the truth is that optimists not
only lead better lives, they’re also more successful because they
believe that what they’re doing is going to work.

The upshot

Constant complaining in the workplace is toxic. It can drain the
happiness, motivation, creativity and fun from a whole company.
Wherever it’s going on it must be addressed and handled properly.

I’m NOT saying that we should never complain at work – quite
the contrary. If you see a problem in your workplace, complain to
whoever can do something about it.

What we should avoid at all costs, is constant bitching and moaning,
where we’re always complaining about the same things, to the same
people, in the same way, day in and day out.

So what can we do about it? Well first of all, each of us can learn
to complain constructively. This means learning to complain in a way
that leads to the problem being fixed – rather than to more
complaining. Here’s my post on how you can How to complain constructively.

Secondly, we can learn to deal with the chronic complainers we meet
at work. Unfortunately, our traditional strategies like trying to cheer
them up or suggesting solutions for their problems don’t work
because complainers aren’t looking for encouragement or
solutions. Here’s my post on how to deal with chronic complainers.

Finally, you can train your own ability to be positive. Just like
complaining can become a habit, so can being appreciative, optimistic
and grateful. You could declare today a positive day, you could take a few minutes at the end of every work day to write down five good experiences from that day or you could praise a co-worker.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

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