Emergency Medicine for a Toxic Workplace

Stressed businesswoman covering her ears with hands

The Monday-morning heart attack is more than a myth. Studies published across the globe in the European Heart Journal, the American Journal of Hypertension, the British Medical Journal and others confirm the heightened incidence of heart attacks on Monday morning.

The rise in heart-attack incidence coincides with the return to work after the weekend. According to the American Institute of Stress, “Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.”

Workplace stress takes a toll on the entire workforce, not just the individual, and it results in loss of productivity, employee turnover and a toxic work environment.

A Major, but Curable, Disease in the Workplace
Whining, moaning and griping are prevalent in society and contribute significantly to the toxic workplace. Much of the stress at work can be mitigated by eliminating complaining, and management can take simple steps to alleviate complaining.

A Complaint Free World
A few months ago, I stumbled upon Will Bowen’s eye-opening, keynote presentation to an audience of educators. I was intrigued, so I enlisted the help of a colleague to try to eliminate complaining from my life. After several false starts, we did it—21 days without complaining. Below the video, you’ll find an extensive review of this fascinating presentation.

 

Bowen, the program’s creator, is a pastor, international speaker, consultant and frequent TV guest who works with companies and organizations around the world to transform them into happier and more productive workplaces. He’s also an international best-selling author and CEO of A Complaint Free World, a nonprofit organization that endeavors to stamp out complaining. Unlike many motivational speakers and consultants, he offers practical advice you can act on right now.

What Is Complaining?
Bowen uses the dictionary definition, “To express grief, pain or discontent.” As you stop uttering complaints, your mind shifts and you become happier. He likens complaining to bad breath: “You notice it when it comes out of someone else’s mouth but not so much when it comes out of your mouth.”

Complaining starts out tame and escalates until it spirals out of control—one-upmanship. Bowen refers to it as a competitive sport. One of his strategies is to nip it in the bud before a molehill becomes Mount Everest.

“Complaining keeps you focused on the problem rather than looking for solutions. It is not complaining to speak only to the person who can resolve the issue. Most people talk to everyone else except the person who can fix the problem,” says Bowen.

Negative Effects of Complaining
According to Bowen, “In most cases, the higher you go in a company, the better the attitude.” The attitude trickles down, so management needs to set the example to avoid the negative effects. Complaining:

  • Keeps you focused on the problem rather than looking for solutions. It moves the conversation from griping about who created the problem to exploring solutions. Bowen says that if you start with the end in mind, the middle steps will fill in for themselves.
  • Damages relationships. The way in which you choose to view someone is how that other person will be to you.
  • Encourages thoughts that affect the body and damage physical, mental and emotional health.
  • Drags others down to the complainer’s level.
  • Limits career success. Bowen tells the story of an HR director who fired her best producer in the company, a 25-year employee. She had such a negative attitude that she dragged the entire department down with her. She had such a devastating effect on new, upbeat employees that she caused many of them to resign. After removing the offending employee, the company’s sales skyrocketed.

Why People GRIPE
Robin Kawalski, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Clemson University and author of Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors, wrote her doctoral dissertation on complaining. She identified five reasons people complain. Bowen suggests using the acronym GRIPE as a handy reminder of the five reasons. He provides a simple response to shut down each type of complaint.

  • G—Get attention. People have no idea how to connect with others so they complain to get noticed. Is this any wonder, since texting has become a communication art?

Response: “So, what’s going well in [your life, your department, with the project, etc.]?”   They’ll tell you what’s going well, or they’ll walk away. Bowen like this one because, “Either way, you win.”

  • R—Remove responsibility. These complaints are “the dog ate my homework” excuses. They’re complaining by asking, “What do you want from me?” The complainer says, “You can’t do that,” but he or she is really saying, “I won’t take responsibility for doing that.” Your initial reaction is probably, “Have you thought about [this], or have you thought about [that]? That’s a losing battle: They’ll give you excuses why whatever you suggest won’t work. Instead of looking for solutions, they’re trying to convince you to join their view that the task is impossible.

      Response: “[Hypothetically,] if it were possible, how might you do it,” is the reply Bowen borrowed from motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Keep repeating the sentence until the complainer responds.

  • I—Inspire envy. They’re complaining to brag. They’re saying, “I don’t have that character flaw.” This type of complaining often takes the form of gossip. Gossip is complaining, and studies have found that gossip is generally distributed equally among men and women. When people gossip, they tell you what’s wrong with a person to give the impression that they’re a good person to put up with the object of their gossip. They elevate themselves by taking others down. The undercurrent is, “My standards are so high that [whomever or whatever] can never meet them.”

      Response: Turn it around and compliment the opposite. “You know what I really admire about you…” Suppose an employee complains that another employee is lazy and always arrives late. The response is, “You know what I really like about you is your work ethic and the fact that you’re always punctual.”

  • P—Power. People complain as a way of building a case against the other person. Notice it in meetings. When a person complains for power, often they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. They think they’re conveying important information.

       Response: When two people are complaining over an issue in a power play, refuse to get involved. Bowen recommends saying, “Sounds to me like you two have a lot to talk about.” They’re talking to their superior to gain power over the other. They’re not talking to the one person with whom they could work out the disagreement or reach a mutual conclusion.

  • E—Excuse poor performance. While similar to “remove responsibility,” the “excuse poor performance” type of complaining offers up rationalized lies about why they didn’t succeed.

Response: “How do you plan to improve next time?” That puts the focus on next time and sets up the employee to be accountable in the future.

How to Address a Grievance Positively
Bowen says that most complaining carries the tone, “How dare you do this to me?” To receive a positive outcome from a grievance, he suggests:

  • Identify the person who can resolve the problem instead of complaining to everyone else.
  • Start the conversation by saying, “You’re probably not aware of this, but…”
    Bowen used a common example to illustrate the point: Suppose you’re dining in a five-star restaurant and you order a steak medium-well. When your dinner arrives, the steak is cooked medium-rare. It should be obvious that the last person you want to offend is someone who handles food, but many people use the “how dare you” tact. “I ordered this steak medium well and YOU served me a medium-well steak. If instead, you tell the server, “You’re probably not aware of this since you didn’t cook the steak, but it’s medium-well instead of medium-rare,” you’re likely to get a complimentary dessert for your trouble.
  • Stick to the facts—they’re neutral.

Bowen used a common example: Suppose you’re dining in a five-star restaurant and you order a steak medium-well. When your dinner arrives, the steak is cooked medium-rare. It should be obvious that the last person you want to offend is someone who handles food you’re going to eat, but many people use the “how dare you” tact in this situation. “I ordered this steak medium well and YOU served me a medium-well steak. If instead, you tell the server, “You’re probably not aware of this since you didn’t cook the steak, but it’s medium-well instead of medium-rare,” you’re likely to get a complimentary dessert for your trouble.

The Road to a Complaint-Free Workplace
The average person complains 15–30 times a day, without even realizing he or she is complaining. Using this simple program, most people eliminate complaining within four to eight months.

  • Wear Bowen’s purple bracelet or a rubber band on your wrist.
  • Every time you complain, move the bracelet or rubber band to the opposite wrist.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. A few days after a workplace starts the program, a funny thing happens. Managers begin to hear, “I’m on Day Three. What day are you on?” Team members begin competing to see who can go the longest without complaining.

Bowen cautions against getting discouraged. Everyone will have to switch the rubber band from wrist to wrist multiple times. He describes the four stages on the road to becoming complaint-free:

  • Unconscious incompetent—Before starting the program, you’ll be complaining but not be conscious of it.
  • Conscious incompetent—You’ll be aware of complaining, but you can’t stop yourself.
  • Conscious competent—You’ll be aware you’re not complaining. This is the “I don’t want to move my bracelet stage,” so people can’t find much to talk about.
  • Unconscious competent—At some point after completing 21 days free of complaining, you won’t complain and you won’t think about not complaining. It’s no longer a part of who you are.

The workplace will never be free of challenges, but when complaining is minimized, coming to work is more enjoyable—even on Monday morning.
Visit A Complaint Free World to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *