Growing up, an oft heard phrase in our household was “If you don’t know what to say, shut up!” Going on to “a good school”, I learned a different version “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing”. While too much consideration of the outcome of words has occasionally held me back, these two phrases have generally stood me in good stead. As has been often repeated “Words have consequences” and, given the recent disruption seen in the US, we have definitely seen that in effect. Perhaps a few more people could have benefitted from similar advice?
But, should we always bite our tongues and hold back on expressing our views and thoughts? Is it always deemed negative or aggressive to say what the general audience may not necessarily wish to hear? To complain when it takes very little effort to just grin and bear it? No one likes (to be labelled as) a complainer or a “Moaning Minnie” but if one does not voice discontent, how can others know that one, rightfully or otherwise, feels displeasure?
What are the Pros and Cons of that totally un-British trait: complaining? What is the potential impact of words of complaint and how can one know when they are spoken in observation or in anger?
So, let’s start by looking at the Negatives.
The sun is shining, it’s a great new day, you feel full of energy and ready for any and every task ahead. You log in to your emails and connect to your first videoconference (it is Covid time – we are all working from home) and you are prepped to have a great day. And it starts. “I can’t get into the conference”, “my browser isn’t working”, “I didn’t get the pre-read”, “What’s on the Agenda – no-one told me”. One-by-one the complaints and negative comments begin and you feel your positivity ebbing away. In a video-connected world, each of these can be dealt with, indeed are expected, but when it is or appears to always be the same person as usual making the complaints, reeling off from their endless repertoire of negativity, your great day of optimism starts descending into yet another bad day.
Dealing with what my mother called “Les Miserables”, can put a downer on your day and on those around you. Failing to be seen to deal with it can affect you and your team in a number of ways:
It undermines authority and discipline: the constant complaining brings negatives to the forefront making those not otherwise aware of or affected by them conscious of your failure to deal with them.
It depresses morale: when there is constant complaining, it can remove the energy and dynamism from a team. People become worn down by constantly listening to negativity and a CSAT statistic for Coca Cola in the 80’s suggested ’When one person has a problem, they will tell 9-16 people; when things are going well, they will tell 1”. The downward spiral begins….
It inhibits growth and opportunity: how often do you hear them use the phrase “it’s not worth it”? Your Moaning Minnie has begun convincing colleagues, including you, that there is no point in not just in going that extra mile, but actually in doing what is the current expectation. The basic minimum becomes the new “Stretch Target”.
It creates isolation: no-one wants to be the team Grouch and likewise no-one wants to work with the Grouch. If you haven’t noticed that someone in the team is known for always complaining, maybe that person is you?
Having identified a few Negatives, what are the alternatives and what should we do?
Creating a Positive Mindset
Amanda Turner, Knowledge Specialist at Dubai’s DEWA, talks about creating one’s own positive outlook by focussing on “what brings joy”. Whether that is a spiritual connection (religion, faith, belief) or corporeal, by truly focusing on positive things, it is possible to change and influence the energy around you. That emotion of positivity (although it equally applies to negativity) has even been given a title by Sigal Barsade, PhD of Wharton Business School – emotional contagion – and been covered in a number of videos from Wharton School.
By creating positive emotional energy, it is possible to address the negativity, turning it around to create and/or restore a balanced environment. This requires learning how to become aware of the environment; identify the source of the negativity; reject its downward pull; and focus on what positive actions can be instituted at that moment to make change.
In discussion recently with Amanda and Susan Furness, Strategic Advisor and Edgewalker, the advice for those facing workplace and leadership negativity was simple: “Focus on positive things and positive things will happen. Focus on negative things and your growth becomes stunted. 2021 is a time and environment for change and creates an opportunity for transformation. Acknowledge, embrace, advance, enjoy!”
So what are the practical steps we can take:
Observe your emotions and feelings: bad things happen all the time. A positive attitude comes from recognizing that this is the case and that (1) it may not be your fault, (2) you may not be able to fix it (3) even if you can, can you help someone learn by helping them to fix it in a safe environment instead? It is not always about you and being able to understand that quickly can reduce taking on the negativity of others.
Understand the power of your words: remember that “what has been said cannot be unsaid”. There are those around you who listen to what you say and take guidance and direction from it. Be aware of what you say; be aware that what you mean may not be the same as what is heard. Ensure that you are communicating and not just talking.
Accept feedback: – you may not like it but try to understand where it comes from, why someone would think that way, accept and correct, learn and develop.
Be grateful: given the radical changes that we are facing globally at this time, the ability to be reading this is a cause for gratitude. It means you can read; it means you have (had) access to the internet in some way; it means you have free time. Billions of people have none if any of those abilities. Which would you rather be?
Appreciate those around you: often times, those around you and you, yourself, may only need some positive feedback in order to address the negativity and create a positive feeling. Empathy and appropriate praise are powerful tools in leadership.
As leaders, we strive to create an environment where we can deliver successful outcomes which provide us, and those we work with, the feeling that we are valued and are making a valuable impact. Avoiding focussing on the negative and, instead, creating an atmosphere and environment of positivity, in itself, builds that platform for growth, development, satisfaction and, ultimately, positivity.
Complaints and complaining therefore have their place. They provide us as leaders with an indication of where our efforts can be focussed and best utilised.
Finally, learning how to harness these skills helps us to recognise that all that is negative in the workplace is not always bad and, with the right mindset and courage, can be reversed to create a positive environment. And, ultimately, restore that morning feeling of joy.