Why Complaining Makes You Dumber

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see KFAdvance.com.

Airplanes, restaurants, the office...these are just a few of the worst places for spawning complainers.

In the air, it comes from being strapped to a tiny seat next to strangers at 35,000 feet — plus delays, lost luggage and the toenail-clipper sitting next to you. In restaurants, being served by someone brings out the worst in most people: “The soup is too cold.” “Are you sure it’s vegan?” “What’s taking so long?”

But the real cesspool of constant complaining is in the workplace, where whispers at the water cooler spread negativity like the plague. Indeed, a 1996 Stanford study suggests it’s time to stop. Complaining, or even being complained to, for 30 minutes or more can physically damage the brain.

Researchers used high-resolution MRI scans and found “links between long-term stressful life experiences, long-term exposure to hormones produced during stress, and shrinking of the hippocampus,” the study’s authors wrote. (The hippocampus is the region of the brain involved in the formation of new memories and is also associated with learning and emotions.)

The worst part is that the average person complains between 15 to 30 times a day, according to Will Bowen, best-selling author of “A Complaint-Free World.”

No whining in the workplace

I actually welcome complainers in the workplace — with one important caveat: The complaints need to be constructive. In other words, if you’re not bringing important issues — accompanied by a solution or additional insight — out in the open, then you’re just whining. Here are four ways to be a constructive complainer:

1. Package your complaint like a sandwich

“Woe is me” has never won any friends. But positivity brings out the best in those around you. Thus, the complaint sandwich starts with a positive statement, followed by the complaint, and then closes with another positive statement.

Here’s an example: “I’ve heard great things about your service and I’m excited to try it. But I’ve had a difficult time reaching my account manager for immediate solutions. I’d really like to continue using your services. Is there anything you can do to help?”

Structuring your complaints this way also helps the listener better understand where you’re coming from.

2. Don’t complain about what you created

When fielding complaints, don’t complain about a decision or a situation you created. Own it! It’s the fastest way to change your “karma” from being the victim of circumstances to being empowered to change them. Take control and find more than one solution. You’ll start moving in a different direction and take yourself from “helpless and hopeless” to “helpful and happier.” Even if it’s ultimately not the right answer, it will help create positive momentum.

3. Notice your surroundings

If you absolutely need to let out steam, consider the people around you first. You just never know who’s behind that door. The problem with gripe-fests in the workplace is that they tend to happen in some secret or “safe” place, like the bathroom. Yet we’ve all had to uncomfortably listen to someone complain or gossip, and then — surprise! — a stall door opens and out comes someone unexpected. (If it’s your boss, you’ll have some explaining to do.)

4. Banish the “but...”

Nothing shoots down a group discussion faster than the word “but.” When one person floats an idea and another jumps in with “but,” what comes next is always negative. And it invariably leads to disagreement. To improve team effectiveness, start replacing “but” with “and”: “That’s an interesting idea, and you might also consider…”

Give it a try — you might actually feel the energy in the room start to rise.

A version of this article appears on CNBC.com.

Authors

  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

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