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Complaining respectfully is mark of a good workplace

  • New York Times
  • February 24, 2013 - 10:42 AM

There is the ideal life, and then there is life as it really exists. We have various ways of expressing discontent over this inevitable gap, and one of the most common is complaining.

The workplace is no exception. The office is too hot or too cold. The boss is making me work on a Saturday. More seriously: That manager is a bully. I think that person’s behavior was unethical. .

Imagine a workplace with no complaining at all, and a totalitarian government comes to mind. “If we suppress our dissatisfaction, it will come out in other ways, and it will reduce our cognitive function,” says Sigal Barsade, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies emotions in the workplace.

But complaining also can damage a workplace, she says — either because a legitimate complaint is not addressed or because complaining spreads from worker to worker.

“You can get a complaining culture,” she says.

The work settings with the highest morale and greatest collegiality are those in which “people can feel free to respectfully complain,” says Robin Kowalski, a psychology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. When people air their complaints, they can receive validation of a problem and move closer to a solution.

Kowalski defines complaining as “an expression of dissatisfaction, whether you feel dissatisfied or not” — and that is part of what makes the topic complex.

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