Coping With a Workplace Where the Glass Is Always Half Empty

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Complaining about work might seem natural, but it can also be a huge time waster, dragging down the productivity and well-being of the chronic complainers, as well as everyone around them.

Even if you want to stay positive, once a culture of negativity has taken root in your workplace, it can be hard to resist.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Jon Gordon outlines a way out of this trap in "The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work" (Wiley, $19.95).

Gordon's core message is simple and effective. But it's also deliverable in a handout. To illustrate that message, and to pad it out to the length of a book, he wraps it into a parable about a troubled company and its beleaguered -- but eventually triumphant -- human resources executive. Only at the end does he deliver the goods: a practical, step-by-step plan for maintaining a healthy attitude at work.

The crux of that plan is to cut down on complaining. But Gordon isn't saying we all need to stick our fingers in our ears and try to la-la-la our way to happier workplaces. Instead, people -- and organizations -- must work to transform "mindless complaining" into "justified complaining."

"The difference is intent," Gordon writes. "With mindless complaining you are mindlessly focusing on problems; however, with justified complaining, you identify a problem and the complaint moves you forward to a solution."

In other words, before you gripe about something -- especially to your boss -- stop and think of one or two suggestions to fix the problem. Similarly, if other people tend to use you as an outlet for their complaining, turn the focus back to them, and ask what they think should be done about the problem. (In my experience, this technique works just as well in family dining rooms as corporate board rooms.)

His advice is such common sense that it's surprising how few people follow it. Mindless complaining is so pervasive that many people don't even realize they are doing it, or they try to justify it as therapeutic "venting." Not sure whether you're a problem whiner? Gordon includes a brief quiz at the end of the book that helps you figure out where you fit on the continuum of complainers.

Once you know that, breaking the complaining habit is pretty straightforward, and Gordon turns to some classic advice:

· Practice gratitude. Count your blessings each day. "If you are focusing on gratitude, you can't be negative," Gordon writes. "You can also energize and engage your co-workers by letting them know you are grateful for them and their work."

· Praise others. "Instead of complaining about what others are doing wrong, start focusing on what they are doing right," he says. Aim for a ratio of three positive comments for every negative one.

· Let go. Some things aren't worth complaining about because there is nothing anybody can do to fix them. "You'll be amazed that when you stop trying to control everything, it all somehow works out," Gordon writes.

Of course, his suggested changes can be implemented fairly easily on an individual level. For most people, it's just a matter of breaking a bad habit. (Admittedly, for some lifelong, chronic complainers, this may be almost as difficult as quitting smoking.)

It's on the organizational level that things can get tough. It doesn't matter what kind of "complaint process" a company sets up if the people at the top don't wholeheartedly embrace the idea -- and if the rank and file don't think it's sincere. After all, plenty of floundering organizations have "complaint czars," intranet discussion pages and suggestion boxes.

More often than not, those suggestion boxes just sit empty -- or fill up with trivialities -- while the real problems are "vented" at the local bar.

Coping Mechanisms

Have you worked with chronic complainers? How do you manage to stay upbeat despite their negative attitudes? If you're willing to share your story and advice for this column, e-mail slayterme@washpost.com. Please include your full name and daytime phone number.

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