As I See It: Poisoning The Well
December 2, 2013 Victor Rozek
A long time ago, I was in an elevator with five or six other people when the power died and the box hung suspended between floors. There were a few gasps of shock and moans of annoyance, and more than one profanity hurled at the vicissitudes of fate so bold as to interfere with our individual designs. But after our protestations fell on fate’s indifferent ears, we gradually lapsed into an uneasy silence. It was very dark and very quiet, and amid the growing anxiety it felt like we were dangling in a group coffin.
One woman in particular was having a difficult time. Perhaps she was claustrophobic, or simply resistant to the idea of being indefinitely stuck in a small, dark box with people who smelled of apprehension, fueled by the ever-so-slight possibility that no one would come. But whatever her fears, it wasn’t long before she started whimpering “I gotta get out of here.”
Me too, I thought, and her whining wasn’t helping my equilibrium. In fact, her anxiety was infecting the rest of the passengers. The elevator morale was plummeting. Soon her angst blossomed into full hysteria and she began yelling “We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die!” About that time help arrived and a guy was trying to yell instructions to us from the floor above. He was hard to hear, and her screaming wasn’t making it any easier. Asking her to stop had no effect. Finally, with everybody yelling and the woman screaming, I stepped up to her and, in desperation, slapped her hard enough to extract her from whatever hell she was inhabiting. It worked. She stopped screaming, and shortly thereafter we were all freed.
In regard to morale, the office is not unlike the elevator. The enclosure may be larger, but the behavior of a single person can poison the atmosphere. That person is the professional complainer. Armed with an advanced degree in lamentation, they will defy any set of circumstances to satisfy them. From the weather to the workload, from the supervisor to the cafeteria food, everything conspires to displease them, and everything would be peachy if only management would listen to their advice.
Generally, complaint results from an inability to manage one’s own frustration, anxiety, or impatience. It is a way to externalize the internal dissonance between what is wanted and what is available. Complaint is the currency of victimization and, through claims of unfairness or inequity, seeks to cast the victim as hero. But it is a heroism based on inaction, as if the mere recognition of a problem absolves the speaker from participating in the solution. Andre Torrez had a better idea: “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”
As a behavioral strategy, complaint infantilizes the complainer because it traffics in the presumption of helplessness. And in the office, it can infect others with paralyzing dysfunction because complaint ignores the obligations of employment (creativity, self-motivation, problem solving) in favor of passive compliance. Why bother? Complaint becomes the substitute for action. Granted, not all complaints can be resolved by the complainer. A large body of complaint focuses on issues beyond their control. But the antidote to frustration is to turn complaints into requests. They may not be honored, but at least a solution is being proposed.
In the words of writer/critic Robert Hughes, “To be infantile is a regressive way to defy the stress of corporate culture.” But complaint is perhaps more illustrative of the speaker than the culture. Excessive complaint reveals two insufficiencies in the speaker: I don’t have enough of what I want and, I am not good enough to get it. As an organization, a culture of complaint translates to: We’re not capable of creating the kind of outcomes we want.
But perhaps the most toxic byproduct of complaint is its power to turn one person against another through a process called triangulation. In this model, the complainer plays the part of the victim (a familiar role) and goes in search of a rescuer, someone who will listen and be sympathetic. The third participant in the triad is the persecutor who has committed some real or imagined slight against the victim. Triangulation occurs when the victim finds a rescuer for the purpose of complaining about the persecutor, without the alleged persecutor being present. Thus, the victim and rescuer collude against the third party, without his/her knowledge or ability to respond.
It’s a combination of gossip and character assassination and it can splinter a workplace. The twin fetishes of triangulation–righteousness and reprisal–are both highly toxic. Reputations are sullied, intentions are falsely attributed, lies are spread. Whether the conversations occur in the lunchroom, over drinks after work, or on social media, what is thoughtlessly said about others matters because words don’t only describe reality, they also create it. Implanting damaging descriptions of others can create impressions that last for years, needlessly generating dislike, suspicion, and fear.
Nietzsche took it one step further. He believed that, “It’s impossible to suffer without making someone pay for it; every complaint already contains revenge.” Although most people would not describe themselves as vengeful, triangulating against coworkers is akin to exacting retribution for a crime that was never committed. On the topic of revenge, Marcus Aurelius advised, “The best revenge is to be unlike him that performed the injury.” Eighteen centuries later, humorist Josh Billings added this insight: “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”
The remedy for triangulation is for the victim to go directly to the person he/she believes to be the persecutor and deal with the problem there–the only place where remedy is possible. Rescuers can help by directing victims to the right person, and not indulging them.
The best method for curbing chronic complaint is to offer empathy without collusion. It’s tempting just to ignore the complainer, but not listening only ingrains our tendency to be jaded, and technology has already become kryptonite to the superpowers inherent in listening. If a complainer feels that their distress is being taken seriously, it eliminates further need for complaint. In effect the listener is acknowledging, “It’s hard being you,” albeit more respectfully.
The antonym of complaint is praise, which is exactly what complainers crave, and precisely what they won’t receive. Which only leads to more complaining. Empathy, if offered authentically, can short-circuit the cycle.
And hey, if it doesn’t work you can always complain.