‘Do I Complain Too Much?’

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

How can you stop complaining when you’re in a work situation that is frustrating and stressful?

I work for an organization that is structured quite flexibly, and people are often shuffled to different project teams throughout the year. My main role is independent, but for a big, multi-month project, I’ve been assigned part-time to a team of people doing slightly different work than I normally do. Most people are shuffled among teams often, and the workplace is extremely casual, which has resulted in both long-term friendships among many of them and also long-term resentments, irritations, and tons of gossip. It seems to me, as a relative outsider, that almost everyone thinks they know the job(s) best and that others are not doing well, for both personal and work-related reasons. So gossip and complaining are extremely common. Though, to be fair, I think many of my colleagues would also say they think the job is very fun and they love coming to work; I’d say that about my regular job but not the project work, personally.

The challenge for me is that I find my project team extremely difficult to work with. I feel condescended to and like our team lead is not open to ideas, and I often feel that we are not sharing tasks or working efficiently, but I also do not feel that my team members are very receptive to feedback. When they get suggestions from others, they immediately, defensively, explain why it’s someone else’s fault. 

I have gotten useful feedback from our project supervisor (not an actual manager with power exactly, which is another challenge!) that I can be more assertive about our interpersonal and workflow challenges. So I’m going to work on that. I am also working on observing different kinds of workflow and interpersonal interactions and learning from them, either to try to address or to reflect on for my professional future. So I observe our workdays and think, are there patterns of behavior that seem changeable that I could tackle with my team lead? Or are some of these things just personality issues that are unlikely to be fixable over the few months we’re on this project? 

But! I guess I would call myself an “external processor” and when I feel frustrated, my anxiety about trying to solve it makes me want to talk through it with someone else, and then I fear I’ve crossed over into complaining and gossiping in ways that aren’t useful. Several other people throughout our workplace also get frustrated by some of my team members, so they’re all too willing to indulge me when I want to express my anxiety.

The project is temporary, and I can talk to my main boss about future assignments, but I do genuinely enjoy the main, independent part of my job, and I don’t want to jeopardize that work by asking to be pulled from this project team in the middle of it.

Any insight for people who are genuinely unhappy at work? Should I try venting to my journal and finding a way to get reassigned, or are there intermediate steps I can take to feel better?

So here’s the deal about complaining at work: It often makes you less happy.

This can sound counterintuitive, because a lot of people think of venting as an escape valve for stress and figure that if they didn’t vent it, it would build up inside of them and get worse and worse. In reality, though, it’s often the opposite. Frequent complaining can make you spend a lot more time thinking about the things that are frustrating you, and that can make them seem worse than they otherwise would. It sort of feeds your dissatisfaction.

In additional to making you less happy, there are two other problems with frequent complaining at work. One is that putting out a stream of negative talk can make things much less pleasant for the people around you. It sounds like you have some co-workers who are happy to participate in these conversations — but what about people in the vicinity who aren’t, and who get stuck overhearing it? Regular complaining has a way of bringing down everyone who’s exposed to it — it will make other people’s work environments less enjoyable, and it can make your concerns contagious. (Ever have a friend who complained constantly about someone else, and over time you started to see that other person through your friend’s lens, even though you originally liked them? Same thing here.)

The other problem is the impact it can have on your professional reputation. Even when you’re venting to truly sympathetic people, if you do it enough, over time you may begin to be perceived as someone who doesn’t handle stress well — and that’s not good for you if you want to be promoted or take on stretch projects. It’s much better for you professionally if people at work to see you as relatively unflappable, not as prone to frustration. (In reality, few of us truly pull off unflappable, but you want to aim for that general direction.)

That doesn’t mean that you have to be a constantly smiling Pollyanna or that you’re supposed to ignore real problems. But when there’s a problem that’s not going to go away anytime soon — like a difficult client or an incompetent colleague — it’s often more productive to accept that it’s part of your working conditions right now and to move forward without constantly dwelling on it. (That’s not to say that there aren’t times when you should try to change those things! There are. But when you’re not going to take any particular action, talking about it over and over tends not to be useful.)

When you feel like you’re doing a lot of complaining or venting of anxiety, a good litmus test is to ask yourself: “What am I trying to achieve by saying this?” Sometimes you might truly be trying to problem-solve with the other person, or looking for a reality check to see if something is really as off-base as it feels to you. But a lot of times, the answer to that question might make you realize that voicing those anxieties isn’t particularly useful.

Also! Don’t lose sight of the fact that your current situation is temporary, and try to focus on what you want to get out of it while you’re there. It might help to tell yourself, “Yes, Jane makes me want to pull out all my hair and weave it into a rope ladder that I’ll use to escape from the window of this conference room, but doing a good job on this project means I’ll get more of the assignments I want in the future, and I only have two more months left. I can handle two months.” And actually, that same principle applies even when there isn’t a definite end date in sight. If you’re stuck in a job you hate or with a boss you can’t stand, it can make things a lot more bearable to remind yourself that you’ve chosen to be there because you’re getting other benefits that make it worthwhile to you: a short commute, or a great salary, or whatever it might be.

And of course, if your frustrations become so strong that none of these strategies works, that can be a flag that the situation actually isn’t bearable for you, and that you need to leave (or switch projects, or so forth). But it doesn’t sound like you’re there yet.

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Ask a Boss: ‘Do I Complain Too Much?’