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Complaining Leaders

Do you know anyone who seems to prefer complaining about their circumstances to changing them? We all have reasons, explanations, or excuses for why things are the way they are, but bottom line—we are in charge of most of the things we allow in our lives. If there is something you truly can’t change, you need to change your attitude about it. Complaining alone never solves anything. Change requires action, and refusing to act is acceptance of the situation. Don’t complain about what you accept.


A person in a senior leadership position has a large degree of control over their circumstances. Complaining about those circumstances while doing nothing to change them is not leading.


You’re in the position to build people who will help you build an organization. You’re not in a leadership position to condemn, criticize, or complain. To complain about the people you’re responsible to build is ridiculous and detrimental.


Truth is, if you have someone who reports to you and they are not performing to your standards, you may have hired the wrong person. That’s on you to fix, your responsibility. Or you’re not providing them with the tools and training they need to succeed. That’s your responsibility too. That’s what leading is about—taking responsibility for the success of others.


True leaders don’t complain—they adjust their thinking and change their actions. You can complain or you can lead, but you can’t do both. Complaining is an immature reaction, and it means that the leader has lost control and has reverted to a juvenile position. Any leader who complains is simply not a good leader. Everyone who witnesses a leader complaining knows it too.


Complaining is a fairly common human thing. Complaining about the weather is one thing, but complaining about other people is a whole other animal. It is unhealthy—socially, emotionally, and physically. When leaders complain about others, especially in front of those they are leading, they issue an invitation for others to do the same. This has the potential to create a toxic workplace very quickly! Complaining leaders generate a lack of respect for both themselves and others.


Scientific research tells us that when leaders regularly complain at work and outside of work they are also less happy as persons, and negatively affect the mood of those around them. Complaining also sets us up to suffer from all types of diseases. Dr. Travis Bradberry wrote an article in the Huffington Post titled, “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity.” In the article he talks about how complaining leads to brain damage. He states, “When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood, and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself. All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.” We all agree that smoking, drinking too much, and lying on the couch watching TV all day is bad for you. We see that complaining is as well.


Dr. Travis Bradberry, head of TalentSmart, quotes research showing that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. He says, “Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable—such as smoking or eating a pound of bacon for breakfast—complaining isn't good for you. Your brain loves efficiency and doesn't like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you're doing it.”


Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it's easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what's happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior. That changes how people perceive you.

There’s more. Complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Stanford University research has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that's critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it's one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer's.


So what are you going to do?


Monitor the persons with whom you spend the most time. Humans are inherently social. Our brains naturally and unconsciously adapt to the moods of the people with whom we spend a great deal of time. This called neuronal mirroring. It’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The other side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like second-hand smoking—you don't have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects. You need to be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything. If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You'd distance yourself. You should do the same with complainers.


Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. When you want to complain, shift your attention to something you're grateful for. It’s the wise thing mentally, and it reduces the stress. Research conducted at the University of California, found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood and energy and substantially less anxiety due to lower cortisol levels. If you are tempted to think negatively and complain, shift gears to think about something positive. Gradually a positive attitude will become a way of life.


If it is an actual situation worth the focus, engage in solution-oriented complaining. Complain with a purpose. If you can’t identify the purpose, if you are just complaining to vent, stop. It’s destructive.

  • Start with something positive. Start a complaint with a compliment. You can get to a solution better if you don’t make the person defensive.

  • Be specific. Don’t bring up everything that has gone wrong in the last year. Just address the current situation and be as specific as possible.

  • End on a positive note. If you end your complaint negatively or with a threat, the person has no reason to change anything. You're just venting. Instead, restate your purpose, as well as your hope that the desired result can be achieved, and thank them for listening.

Staying positive and rejecting purposeless complaining will improve your leadership—and your entire life.

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