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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Constructive Complaining

Complaining can be a great tool for initiating change, and if we outlaw complaining in the workplace, all we do is drive it underground where it becomes even more toxic. So accept that complaining plays an important role at work, but the key thing here is to know the difference between constructive and unconstructive complaining.

Unconstructive complaining could be described as complaining about a problem that you and your team cannot solve. Additionally, complaining to someone who is not involved in the situation or who cannot help in doing anything about it is gossiping. Whining is a unconstructive complaint because it not only contributes to a negative work environment, but it also impacts the brain:

A 2011 research study by Thomas Straube of the University of Muenster and another by Go Okada of Hiroshima University concluded that exposure to negative words impairs the formation of memory associations critical to productive work; research conducted by Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky shows how stress from negative influences can shrink the hippocampus, the very part of the brain required to solve problems and drive initiatives. So whining isn’t only unproductive, it’s counter-productive, depressing cognitive function and dampening can-do spirit.

Here are some of the differences between constructive and unconstructive complaining:

Unconstructive: Complain about what bugs you the most.

Constructive: Complain about the right thing.

Is the problem really the issue? Or is there a deeper issue going on? Complain about the problem, not just the symptoms.

Unconstructive: Complain when you feel the most annoyed.

Constructive: Complain at the right time.

There are times to complain and times not to. Choose a moment where there’s time, will and energy to deal constructively with the issue. Five minutes before an important meeting starts is probably not the time.

Unconstructive: Complain to whoever will listen.

Constructive: Complain to someone who can do something about it.

If your boss is the problem, complaining to your co-workers is not going to solve the issue. Have a conversation with your boss and if nothing changes talk to the boss’s boss.

Unconstructive: Seek blame.

Constructive: Seek solutions.

Going in with the intention of making people admit they’re at fault is not productive. Does it really matter whose fault it is? Forget blame and focus on moving on and finding lasting solutions.

Sometimes we complain to figure out what the true problem is. Consider using this 3-step approach to constructive complaining:

  1. Complain about a problem to someone who could have possible solutions. Try to determine what exactly the problem is and look at it from all angles. Lots of frustration and anger may come out, but it’s to get to the root of the issue.

  2. Brainstorm solutions and mull over options to solve the problem.

  3. Discuss the problem and potential solutions with those involved in the situation to get their feedback and additional ideas. They could suggest solutions that you hadn’t thought about or they may also have great reasons why not to change something.

This can be a productive process and result in improvements. Mindless complaining turns us into victims. We can’t control everything and everyone in our lives, but we can control our actions and do the best we can. Be more mindful in your complaints:

  • Notice when you’re complaining and what you’re complaining about.

  • When you complain, feel how it feels in your body. If something feels uncomfortable enough, you’ll be more motivated to take action.

  • Take that action. Do what you can and accept what you have no control over.

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, listen to the latest podcast episode of A Mindful Moment with Teresa McKee titled, “Complaining Mindfully”.


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