do I complain too much at work?

A reader writes:

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 manger 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? This is all useful.

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.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 102 comments… read them below }

  1. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

    It speaks a lot that OP is aware of her penchant for “external processing” and is worried about when it crosses the line to gossiping and complaining. Half the battle is admitting that you are participating in a negative feedback loop – as long as you are externally processing in a negative manner, there will be no positive resolution. You have to process in a positive manner. Venting can be a very helpful and therapeutic method to relieve anxiety so you can focus on resolving the issue… but the recipient of the vent needs to be appropriate. It should not be a coworker, especially when you are deep in the initial emotions of the situation.

    1. M-C*

      Venting should only be done at a consenting party. Do you have someone in your private life who can fill this function? Can you work out some equitable exchange for the emotional labor? Many people use therapists for that and it’s a perfectly legitimate use of them, you just pay for venting time

      1. paul*

        And even then you have to limit its frequency. I can’t draw a bright line at a given number of sessions/year, but if you vent and vent and vent you make yourself feel worse, at least IME.

    2. Specialk9*

      Verbal processing and venting are VERY different things.

      Verbal processing is having something building inside of you but not knowing its contours or what to do about it – talking it through let’s you figure it out, and often you find your own solution at the end.

      Venting/complaining is when you already know what the situation is, and you want to talk about how annoying it is. It’s all complaining, no problem resolution.

      If you find yourself retreading ground, you’re almost surely complaining. Try to minimize that. Complaining poisons you and the workplace.

  2. Antilles*

    So here’s the deal about complaining at work: It often makes you less happy.
    This is a fantastic point. Frankly, this doesn’t even just apply to ‘at work’, but complaining in general: While it seems like it might be ‘venting’, it can make you end up angrier because you spend more time thinking about the problem and all the ways that things are wrong and how they should be fixed and how come those dummies don’t just do X and etc.
    As a general rule, I’d say the way to tell whether it’s beneficial or not is just to *listen* to yourself. Are you sort of laughing about the situation? Are you just casually telling the story as “here’s a ridiculous story”? If so, you’re probably fine. But if you’re angry or frustrated, then repeatedly going over the issue will probably just going to enhance everything you’re already feeling and make you feel even worse.

    1. Snark*

      Even “here’s a ridiculous story” can get toxic quick enough that it’s to be avoided. That’s gossip.

    2. Specialk9*

      Mmm, honestly it sounds like you’re not a verbal processor. We need to talk it through and we don’t have the distance to be laughing yet, that’s a much later stage of processing. But verbal processing is usually not repetitive (unless we’re just not getting something important and keep coming back to it) — once we get it (through talking it out), we understand what’s going on and how we feel about it. After that, coming back and back is likely complaining. But we need that initial space to figure out our thoughts, and we need to be able to have emotions during that process.

  3. Snark*

    Being an external processor is all well and good, but…..I say this as someone who has been annoyed by the workplace complainer, who has been processed at by the workplace complainer, and who has been the workplace complainer….you’re turning into the workplace complainer. That’s not a thing you want to be or get known for. Naturally, at times, we all need to talk about stuff that’s not working or problems we’re having, but those discussions need to lead to action, and they need to happen only as often as needed to make actions happen.

    As Alison says, you need to determine if there’s an actionable outcome of the conversation you’re having that advances your work in some way. “I feel less anxiety about needing to fix things” is not that. “I have a new strategy to approach a difficult person” or “I can suggest a change to the workflow that will reduce this point of friction” or “I have a script to approach my team lead about a concrete issue we can resolve” are. And then you need to take that action and change the thing. If you’re just talking about it over and over, achieving nothing but a venting of emotions, keep a lid on it and find someone outside your workplace to direct it at.

  4. LizB*

    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

    Alison, you’ve been on point with the entertaining lines this week! I love this blog. (And can absolutely relate to this sentiment.)

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Yes, this mental image alone is worth whatever price New York mag paid for that article, ten times over.

    2. Amber Rose*

      Came here to say this, but you beat me to it while I was rolling. I’m going to have this line in my head during every meeting from now on, I swear.

    3. Kristal*

      I adore this! And these kinds of fanciful internal thoughts can help those of us in situations like the LW’s feel a little less helpless and a bit more cheery about it, if we keep them to ourselves or to our friends outside of work.

  5. Kms1025*

    Somebody one said, maybe even someone on here, that if you treat annoying work issues or people that are out of your control as National Geographic observations of strange cultures, people, and practices…you will find yourself in a totally different mindset than the annoyed coworker.

    1. Jesca*

      Yes, I am 99% sure AAM has said this. I know I saw it here, and I use this mentality all the time at work.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I love when you link letters I’ve never seen. I’m shocked you didn’t make a Little Mermaid joke in that one though :)

    2. K.*

      I’m in this situation now and it really, really helps. Truly. I approach things in a bemused observational way, rather than an annoyed taking it personally way.

  6. Sfigato*

    It took me a long time to realize how toxic complaining can be, especially when it is ongoing and not focused on a solution. The biggest issue, besides the fact that you are focusing on the negative, framing everything negatively, and infecting your colleagues with your negativity, is that it is totally lazy. Any idiot can complain. It takes zero effort to complain about most things. It is much, much harder to work on solutions.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yep – one of my teams is a sarcastic, war-story-loving bunch, but the rule is that if you show up at someone’s door with a complaint, the next thing out of your mouth should be a proposed solution (or at least what you’ve rejected as solutions and are stuck on). They’re smart people, and they come up with some great stuff.

      We do work with some truly exasperating people, and I do give people a moment to express their frustration with Bob the Procrastinator, who’s, yet again, changed everything at the last minute and not changed behaviors that he’s been talked to a bazillion times before – Bob sucks, but the client work still have to get done even if Bob sucks. Vent about Bob and then go clean up his mess, letting me know how I can pitch in and help and then send me a wrap up so I can go talk to Bob and/or his boss (yet AGAIN) about the various negative impact of these fire drills.

      1. Blue*

        This sounds like SO many of the reports I give my supervisor! It usually starts with something like, “You’ll be shocked to hear that Bob missed the deadline. Again.” I already have the situation under control 98% of the time, but it really is helpful to know that he agrees that they suck and is willing to back me up if needed.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      It’s true it is exhausting but sometimes there simply IS no solution either. This is especially true if some mandate has come down from executive management. Everyone knows it’s bad… but management won’t even hear any discussion from employees.

  7. MommyMD*

    I’d take a deep breath and just try to get through the next few months knowing it will end. It sounds frustrating and disorganized. Good luck.

  8. Bob*

    My personal philosophy is a) make sure there’s nothing can do to fix or improve the problem b) make sure my manager is aware a problem exists ( though they typically already know it) and then (assuming it is not going to be fixed) c) either stop complaining or switch jobs. Many people acknowledge the problem will not (or can not) be fixed yet decide to complain non-stop anyway. Those people are not fun to work beside. And earlier in my career I’ve been that person. I was not happy and I’m sure I was not fun to work beside. I won’t be that person again.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      It is so mind boggling to me how Americans have been trained to be forced to quit instead of forcing a company to fix ongoing problems.

      1. Dana*

        So in your country, how can the worker bees force the higher ups to fix the ongoing problems? What is the mechanism for that?

        80 percent of the problems at my workplace are caused by my boss’s boss. I have exactly zero standing to challenge this person. How can I fix this?

        1. exuviae*

          I’m not MissDisplaced, but as another non-American, I feel like I can weigh in. It’s not as much about an individual’s standing to challenge their bosses, it’s that if something’s genuinely wrong and you raise concerns, you won’t be the only one who has, and those concerns get to the higher-ups and get resolved. Sometimes the answer is “this is a feature, not a bug” and you just didn’t have the right perspective, sure; but if it’s a genuine problem that can be solved, it usually gets solved. Companies unwilling to listen to their employees are usually known for being toxic, unpleasant places to work for, rather than being the norm.

  9. Lil Fidget*

    Ugh such a good question for me to read today. I will be following the comments closely. I get so frustrated by the apathy between teams at my organization – and the bureaucracy – and I think it honestly just comes from a place of being burned out (I’m looking for a new job). I am trying to keep a lid on the complaining because I really think it doesn’t help make you any happier and is definitely a downer to the folks you’re complaining to. But it’s sooooo haaaarrrrrdddd. Especially when my coworkers will jump in if I start it, and that’s gratifying in the moment and feels like it’s helping.

    1. C.*

      I completely agree. My working environment, frankly, has been unbearable for many people for almost 2 years now and nothing is getting better. My colleagues and I are guilty of venting to each other, but I’ve been trying to keep my “complaining” or frustrations in check until I find a new position. I know that, while I don’t inherently feel better about my current position by avoiding these conversations, I know that my mood/morale sinks considerably if I get caught up with an equally unhappy colleague.

      It’s hard, though. I’ve been vocal about mine and my colleagues’ grievances with my manager (in a professional way), and nothing seems to be getting done along those lines. So, I really don’t feel that the complaints are without merit. Still, I’m trying to channel that unhappiness and energy into finding something new.

      Good luck to you!

    2. Blue*

      I’m with you. Burnout makes it so much harder to rein in the complaining. I caught myself being excessively negative in a meeting last week and am trying to steer clear of that, but it requires so much more effort when my filter has run out of gas.

    3. Kristal*

      Yes I have 100% been there. I had a colleague RIGHT BESIDE me every day at work whose style was perfectly engineered to drive me bananas, and I knew that the colleague down the hall agreed with all my petty annoyances, so many days I couldn’t resist getting her validation for my annoyance. But over time I realized that I was making it worse for both of us, as Allison said.

  10. Murphy*

    I find that indulging in complaining too much (which is a thing I am definitely guilty of sometimes) can help push you over the edge into BEC mode with that person/project/whatever.

    1. Triplestep*

      I had to look up “BEC”, but yes! This totally happened to me. One of my coping skills was to set up Outlook so that e-mails from her were immediately marked as read and sent to a special folder that I could check at the end of the day. That way I could mentally prepare myself for them. When I read them as they came in, I would get irate and stew. It also insured that I was rarely the first person to respond to her, which I really did not need to be. Most people consider her to be a fraud who is completely out of her depth (so there is not shortage of people who will complain with/to me about her) but it impacted me more because she presents herself as having expertise in my area.

      1. Triplestep*

        Sorry about the tense-switching above; I am in my notice period for this job and will be starting a new one in less than two weeks. (Yay!)

  11. Amber Rose*

    There’s some science that says that bottling up feelings of anger and frustration is better than indulging them, since indulging them lowers your resistance and will power, and makes you get angrier faster and for longer in the future.

    Although bottling them up is not the right term either. What you’re supposed to do is figure out what’s causing you anger and then come up with ways to make it less hair-ladder-weaving awful. Whether that’s changing something about what you do, or changing the way you think about something.

  12. Jady*

    As someone who’s been miserable at work, my advice for general office drones is simple: Stop caring.

    You’re upset because you care about things getting done, and getting done well. But as you can see, where you are – you have little to no control over that. You’re getting paid to be there, otherwise you wouldn’t be there. People are probably sabotaging you – unintentionally or not. The red tape of the corporation may be blocking you. Your boss may useless. Whelp, not your problem. You should only concern yourself with whatever you have to and can get done for the day, and leave the rest at the door.

    To help with the mindset adjustment, create an post-work routine. I get home after work, change my clothes, wash my face, put on some bedroom socks and that’s The End of the Work Day. No work or work-talk allowed, no work emails or chats or calls, etc. You’re off the clock.

    That super-urgent-critical-life-or-death email you just got? You didn’t see it. Remind yourself that in this absurd place, everything is always an emergency.

    If you can make this mental adjustment, life becomes a lot more bearable in awful work environments. You end up laughing at the absurdity of some situations. These stories you’ll start telling as jokes eventually.

    Some people can’t make this adjustment, I know. My husband is one of them. You’re there so long and so often that you start to drown. In that case, there’s nothing else to be done but job hunt.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Hmm, I guess this would be the strategy if you’re truly stuck in a job and can’t get out, but in general I’d suggest either advocating for change or job searching as being a better approach for OP than going straight to this. There’s an inherent danger in staying in a roll after you’ve lost passion for it – you’re going to be known as someone who’s not very committed / skilled and that can hurt you down the road.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Agreed. Job hunting should start well before becoming this disenchanted. Leaving aside that simply doing the bare minimum or avoiding emails outside of hours would get you fired where I work, very little of this strategy is beneficial to changing the situation for the better. Opportunities to move out of the “general office drone” pool aren’t going to the person who actively doesn’t care, and it’s hard to cultivate good references if you’re not doing a pretty good job.

        Some people will never enjoy working – my husband is one of those people (work to live, as he calls it), but work not being your life’s passion is totally normal, this sort of “adjustment” really isn’t – it’s a last-resort solution for people stuck without any other options.

        1. Jady*

          Given the nature of the OP letter, I thought it implied that we were discussing how to deal with an already toxic environment where you’re at your wit’s end.

          I expect anyone considering this would have already been through the hoops of trying to change negatives, trying to negotiate improvements, trying to get promotions, trying to find new jobs, trying to advocate for raises, etc.

          Unfortunately there are a lot of jobs out there like that, and it can be really stressful and depressing, and you can’t always get out quickly. Sometimes it all comes down to ‘how do I protect my sanity?’

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Hmm, maybe I’m just interpreting her situation differently. I read OP’s letter as enjoying her regular work but having trouble with this particular project, which is temporary, not that the workplace itself was that bad. OP seemed to want to remain employed there, just was struggling to work with this particular project team. Given that this project doesn’t sound long-term, it doesn’t seem to be worth risking one’s reputation to mentally check out.

            Maybe becoming less invested in improving the process for this particular effort and getting better at smiling and nodding at the team lead is the happy medium of not getting so invested but also not coming off as complete apathetic? Temporary project teams can be more challenging to work with because you don’t know the people as well, they don’t work the same way as your regular team, and I find there’s often either no one or everyone trying to take the lead (whether officially or de facto). I see OP’s issue as very different than someone who’s working in a toxic environment.

      2. Triplestep*

        I think it’s the perfect attitude to take while you’re searching for a new job, but not forever. And not because you’ll get to be known as “not very committed/skilled …” I think workplaces that make this sort of coping mechanism necessary don’t notice commitment or skill anyway.

      3. Jady*

        I’d say you don’t get to this point until you’ve already tried advocating for change, or you’re in an environment where doing so would risk your job.

        And yes of course the ideal is to find another job that’s awesome. Sometimes that can be very difficult and/or time consuming. You need ways to cope in the midterm.

    2. Mike C.*

      This is an interesting perspective, but I can’t imagine this works well in vocations where you have to worry about the health and safety of others or take on legal liability for your work. Sometimes you just have to care or others will suffer.

        1. HannahS*

          You’re right, in professions like nursing, social work, etc., what I’ve read is that people just get extremely stressed, burnt out and depressed in dysfunctional workplaces to a point where, for the sake of their own health and the safety of their patients/clients, they need to leave the position or the field entirely. Jady did say “general office drones,” though.

      1. It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... Billable Hour Man!*

        I agree with Jady AND Lil Fidget AND Mike C, despite the apparent conflict: Yes, trying to scale back your level of concern for things you can’t control is a healthy coping mechanism (e.g. AAM’s “your current situation is temporary … try to focus on what you want to get out of it … it can make things a lot more bearable to remind yourself that you’ve chosen to be there because you’re getting other benefits … “). But also yes, not caring is self-sabotaging, could harm others if you work in sensitive fields, and risks your professional reputation in the eyes of those who will care more THAT your work suffered than WHY it did.

        Moreover, I’d argue that we all deserve work that doesn’t so deaden us inside that we can’t muster some level of care about it. Sure, work is work, that’s why they pay you and its privileged advice to tell people to do what they love when many have to work for far more practical reasons — but even if every job can’t be a dream, there ought to be enough there to feel some shred of purpose, even if it’s just a sense of teamwork/assisting likable co-workers in getting through a daily slog.

        Yet, that doesn’t change that sometimes, again per AAM, “frustrations become so strong that none of these strategies works” and “that can be a flag that the situation actually isn’t bearable for you, and that you need to leave” — and sometimes even when that happens a transition still can’t happen in any immediate sense. The job market is challenging, the bills won’t wait on a sabbatical, etc., and you can have fully made the decision that it IS time to move on without having any viable pathway to do it right away.

        Bottom line: Sometimes there’s just no magic bullet and you do the best you can, whatever that ends up meaning.

        1. paul*

          Even in fields where you have a lot riding on you, if you’re not on call that week, it can be very restful to go home and have a “not at work” routine.

          Actually in some of these fields, talking about work can be problematic just due to confidentiality issues anyway. So it’s easier to try to not.

    3. Mad Baggins*

      I really like the idea of a post-work routine, just like a morning routine or bedtime routine to get my mind and body ready to unwind and help differentiate “work” and “nonwork” spaces. Great idea!

      Also, while it seems disheartening to emotionally disconnect from frustrating work, I’ve found that it drastically lowers my stress levels and can actually allow me to be more productive. Instead of thinking, “why is my boss asking me to do XYZ, doesn’t she know that I’ve never done X before, Y isn’t even my job, Z is going to take forever, how am I going to get all this done, why does our consumer-capitalist society require me to spend 8+ hours every day doing virtually meaningless drudgery just to afford an average life, etc. etc.”–instead of searching for ways to change the situation, I can accept that I can’t, and calmly focus on just doing the tasks themselves. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the end result or if the project is done well, you just don’t worked up emotionally about things you can’t change or affect.

  13. Mimmy*

    One is that putting out a stream of negative talk can make things much less pleasant for the people around you.

    Oh god YES!! My coworker is very guilty of this. Sometimes I can try to get her to reframe her thinking, but it’s rare. I can see how it can turn into gossiping. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason our supervisor reallocated her work was so that we are together less often :P (It also helps that, because I had to slightly reduce my hours, we’re generally together just one day a week anyway). I’d say the new arrangement has helped make my environment feel less toxic, though because my coworker is more experienced in what we do, I am still able to turn to her for help or suggestions.

  14. Beancounter Eric*

    If you are asking the question “do I complain too much at work”, you probably do.

    1. Specialk9*

      Yes! There was one project that just went down the toilet, and everything was dysfunctional (but most people had only known that envt so thought it was normal). It was incredibly toxic, and my co-workers and I complained hard, all the time. I really regret that, and an embarrassed by my behavior. I should have just gotten out.

      Now, having seen what the bottom of that sewer looks like, I won’t go back there if I can help it.

  15. It's all Fun and Dev*

    On a related note, how can one shut down a coworker’s venting and complaining without pretending that nothing’s wrong and everything’s perfect? In my last job we were all unhappy and there were some obvious, major issues which management refused to address. I didn’t know what to say when my more junior coworker would complain all day long, because she was right! I just sort of shrugged and didn’t respond in the hopes she would take her venting elsewhere, but I’d love to hear others’ suggestions on navigating that issue in the future.

    1. Mike C.*

      Acknowledge that they’re right but that you can only take so much complaining at a given time. That way you aren’t pretending that nothing is wrong (which would likely lead to more complaints) but you’re clearly setting boundaries so you don’t go crazy.

    2. Helpful*

      “I know it’s difficult, but that’s the way things are right now. We have to find the best way to deal with it.”

      If it continues: “You seem really unhappy. Are you polishing up your resume and looking elsewhere?”

      1. K.*

        This was my strategy at my last job, where everything really was objectively awful (a restructuring was going terribly wrong and everyone involved was miserable. It resulted in two rounds of layoffs that wiped out our team, and the VP who implemented it quit not long after). Another line was “The option to leave is always available, if that’s what you decide is best for you.” And offering legit suggestions for solutions for specific problems, if there were any. “I can’t reach Coworker because blah blah rant fume blah!” “Oh, she’s out of the office today – other people have said she forgot to turn on her out of office. But you can ask Other Coworker about that issue, she’s been working on it too.”

      2. MissDisplaced*

        And then people start leaving in droves…
        Seriously. That’s what happens when management refuses to address issues.

      3. Had Matter's Pea Tarty*

        “Because it was a gosh-diddly-darn miracle I got one job, I’m not going to gamble on two.” replies HMPT, after searching fruitlessly since 2015.

    3. Althea*

      “So what are you going to do about it?”

      “We talk about this all the time, but we’ve agreed we can’t do anything about it without Jane on board. So why discuss it?”

      “In the name of moving forward, is there anything we can do to solve this?”

      “Actually, I’ve found Jane extremely responsive. I haven’t noticed the issues you’re mentioning.”

      “I think from Jane’s perspective, she has to evaluate the risk and then answer to the board if anything goes wrong. I haven’t found her delays to be onerous – in fact I understand she caught a major mistake with her process just last week and prevented a huge loss.”

      Few things shut down a vent like pointing out the validity of the other side! I think it’s harder to shut down complaining when you feel similarly.

    4. JulieBulie*

      “It’s not that I disagree with you that [x] sucks; it’s just that dwelling on it isn’t fun or helpful, and I’d rather save my energy for something constructive.”

    5. Dana*

      Using humor has really helped me in this type of situation. I would sometimes say, “Fergus, you are making a big mistake here. You are attempting to … use LOGIC.”

      That would usually get a laugh and then I could redirect or leave the area.

  16. LQ*

    I’ve been struggling with this lately because it’s sort of becoming my job to repair a relationship with another area of the business. So I kind of need to hear some “complaining” because part of what I need is to identify actual problems, and places where people have totally given up and don’t complain are giving an inaccurate measure of what’s wrong. (I want reports, but reports and complaining when it is really just “this person did this this and this wrong” …it’s sort of hard to be clear on which is which.)

    And then on my end I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what is wrong, what are the underlying problems that are creating that, solving it. And of course to kick it off doing it without much power at all. (I can bring power to the table but it has to be so incredibly well documented and it will be essentially lighting the bridge on fire and then dumping a truck of gasoline on it, so I’d rather find another way to do it.)

    I feel so complaining and I’m struggling with it a lot. But we are very much in the identify and analyze part right now…

  17. Helpful*

    Complaining also attracts complaining. If you’re not a satisfying recipient of other people’s complaints, fewer will find their way to you.

  18. Althea*

    I’m a person who does feel better after complaining externally in some fashion. It IS useful for me and does actually help me to process the problem, my feelings, and move past it to see if anything can be done. Over time, I’ve made sure to put in place the following restrictions:

    1. Stop complaining about something once you notice it’s the same issue over and over, particularly if no solution is available. I worked for someone for years who would edit the same document 2-4 times, even though no on else touched it between her edits. Eventually, everyone came to recognize this was her personality and she would not change. I’d build in extra editing time and it just became an assumption of the document creation process.

    2. Consider your complaint in your head until you can describe it in a concise, preferably witty way. I found that refining the Thing that was bothering me until I could do this cut down on external complaints (because I had to think about it more internally) while helping me put a finger on and describe the exact barrier or problem.

    3. Never complain to a coworker about anything you wouldn’t want another coworker to hear, especially the exact coworker you are complaining about. Thus, never complain about an aspect of someone behind their back that you wouldn’t do to their face given appropriate circumstances. This prevents you from getting mean or spiteful, and prevents some degree of gossip coming back to bite you. For example, complain about a coworker’s slow process holding things up, but not their manner of speaking or some other characteristic. The first is a valid work complaint that sometimes you don’t have the authority to voice or take action on, the second is totally uncalled for.

    4. Save particularly emotional issues for home complaining, aka never send an angry email.

    5. At some point during or after your complaint, ask yourself: “So what are you going to do about it?”

    All of these can allow you to do some productive complaining – it all adds up to making the “complaining” more of a valid problem/solution identification, while still giving you some of the vent that you may want or need.

    1. OldJules*

      I keep my workplace venting to my spouse and parents. Otherwise, it only adds to more drama.

    1. Specialk9*

      I hadn’t realized it until I read it. I think I shall expend effort to appear unflappable.

  19. JulieBulie*

    Here is a strategy I have seen a my employer use to cut down on employee complaints:

    1. Conduct an anonymous survey and ask vague questions. Do not give the employees any context or guidance as to whether their answer should refer to senior management/corporate-level leadership and policy, or to local management and policies.

    2. Compile all of the negative replies and send them to the local managers with instructions to fix the problem.

    3. Have the employees come up with “action plans” to resolve all employee complaints at the local level, even if the complaints were made with corporate level in mind. This will require frequent, lengthy meetings, focus groups, and written reports; no employee or manager will be excused.

    4. Conduct another survey. There will be fewer negative responses.

    1. JulieBulie*

      I know that not all employee survey results are handled this way. And I just realized that my own train of thought got derailed a bit, so this comment is actually off-topic and I won’t be offended if Alison deletes it!

  20. NW Mossy*

    In an effort to remind myself that I neither can nor should fix All The Things, I’ve started categorizing the big challenges that are out of my spheres of control/influence as “the weather in my world.” It’s a useful frame of reference because it helps me see these issues as emotionally neutral (weather is not done to or at me) and that while I may perceive them as problems, things may also be that way for a good reason in the big picture (just like rainy days help plants grow). It also puts me in the mindset that my mission is not to change the situation but to change how I choose to respond to it. Complaining about the weather doesn’t change it, but I can certainly choose the right sort of clothes and activities for whatever today’s weather happens to be.

  21. KaraLynn*

    There really is no such thing as venting. It’s complaining. Someone just made up a term that tries to make it seem more healthy or positive, but it really isn’t.

    1. Specialk9*

      I actually agree about venting. But verbal processing is absolutely a thing. People who dismiss it are clearly internal processors. Seldom do two groups so thoroughly not understand each other.

      1. Dana*

        So much this. We just have to separate into our groups. But I highly recommend venting outside the office and not to coworkers.

        My friend and I even made up a script of a situation comedy for her situation. We called it the equivalent of “Lila and the Llama Herder” and imagined all her work travails as if they were scripted by someone in Hollywood. We got a lot of good laughs out of that.

        I love the idea of taking the anthropological approach suggested above, as well.

        It’s all about saving your sanity, if you can’t leave or if jobs are hard to come by.

    2. Emi.*

      Venting is a sub-category of complaining (along with kvetching, belly-aching, and many others). The distinguishing characteristic of venting is that its purpose is to get something off your chest and move on.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Yep. Yep. Yep.
      Some people derive energy from complaining. If they can’t complain they would fall asleep, they are so tired.

      I try to stay out of venting, we all have off days once in a while, but regular venting does nothing. It just helps to convince the venter how right they are and wastes time that could have been used to look for solutions or look for ways to lessen the problem.

  22. chomps*

    Great advice. I’m in a department full of complainers and I eventually realized that complaining with my colleagues was making me feel worse AND giving me a skewed view of the situation. So I stopped. It’s helped a lot. But I talk to my coworkers less often as a result.

  23. NotAnotherManager!*

    I currently work with someone who LOVES to complain. Loves it. This person will ask me questions about how to do something and use that as a segue into their complaints. It is a struggle to keep the conversation focused, and I’ve had to flat out tell them that, while I’m happy to work through solutions, the complaining has to stop because it’s not productive and it’s not helping the team. Their direct supervisor sat them down and told them that their complaining was overshadowing their good work and that, any time a meeting veered from problem-solving to complaining, the meeting was over until they could come back with a solution.

    I will say, to OP’s last question about wanting to solve problems by talking to someone else and not have that devolve into complaining and gossip – it’s all about approach. It’s the difference between “Jane and Fergus are taking too long to shear the llamas. My team can shear a llama in half that time with only one person!” (complaining) and “Wow, I know how unruly that llama hair can be. Wakeen and I ran into that once on a project last year, and it ended up being dull shears. Once we sharpened them, the blades cut cleaner and we only needed one person per llama since they stopped dodging us once their hair wasn’t getting yanked by the dull ones anymore. Can we give that a shot here or is there a different way you want us to shear this llama?” (having a better way).

  24. Boötes*

    Idea for managing one’s tendency to complain:

    As a chronic worrier, one strategy I find helps is to schedule a time to worry: at 4 pm I give myself 10 minutes to worry about everything. Once I catch myself worrying, I think “Ah, I’ll put that on the Worry Agenda”. By the way, I don’t set an alarm for it. If at 4:15 pm I realize I missed my Worry Time, then it gets pushed to tomorrow’s Worry Time. Promising myself I will worry about it appeases that bit of my brain and lets me turn my attention to thinking Okay, so what can I DO about it?

    Seems like having a Complaining Time (whether to myself or to a truly willing listener) would work next time I find myself complaining.

    Similarly, I love doing a Worry Swap: I exchange worries with a friend and promise to do all the worrying about his/her issue so s/he don’t have to spend such emotional energy on the worry aspect, and vice versa.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I went through a rough patch and I used this technique at home for my own personal life.
      Nine PM was my cutoff. I was not allowed to worry about anything after 9 pm. All the worry in the world did not change that hot mess. To change the mess, I needed actual rest so I could think my way through the problems.
      At first this was weird, then I got to the point where I looked forward to 9 pm.

      1. Boötes*

        Oooh I like that idea. Often by then my defenses are down and as I see the mountains of incomplete tasks around me, Worry calls up Self-Reproach and they gad about, sometimes joined by Panic until Fatigue shows up and shuts down the anxiety party. I’ll try the 9 pm cutoff right now. (Gotta be nine somewhere!)

  25. MyInnerDemonLikesCookies*

    Some really good advice here from everyone. I wish I could print out the article and leave it for a few people I work with (very, very tempting). But, it’s good advice for me, too —- it’s easy to get discouraged and realize that all of a sudden, you’re on the Negativity Train (going fast, but going nowhere good).

  26. Winger*

    I am in a tough situation at work right now (long story short I hate my job) and there is a LOT I could complain about, but I put a lot of energy into not complaining. Alison’s advice here is spot on. I have a couple of colleagues who are inveterate complainers and they seem to be especially miserable here.

  27. bloop*

    While I agree that excessive, constant complaining is usually counterproductive and alienating, I do think a mild amount of venting from time to time can be helpful so long as you are careful about your audience and don’t let yourself veer into repetitive whining. I find the idea that somehow not talking about negative things will stop you from having negative thoughts/feelings to be….. highly untrue.

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