The Value of Griping

12 Apr 2017. Bob Kaplan

When I bump into my neighbor, who happens to be a CEO, it's the same sad song, the same resentful lament. "I'm so frustrated," he says. Anytime somebody says with feeling "I'm frustrated," you know what's probably coming—a gripe session.

Sounding more like a division manager than the top guy, he would continue: "Those damned corporate staff types; they're swamping the business with corporate initiatives. I can't get it through their thick skulls that they're here on earth to support the business. On top of that, I question their work ethic; the parking lot is empty by 5:00 p.m. I'm ready to pull my hair out." He's held that role for three or four years.

As surprising as it may seem given their top position, some CEOs complain. Frustrated and annoyed, they harp on a tired subject, usually having to do with someone not in the room. Multi-capable though they may be, they've bumped up against the limits of their capability and default to whining.

Complaining is very different from constructively, even earnestly, raising a concern. There's a world of difference between complaining and taking account of a problem analytically, dispassionately, efficiently. One approach is riddled with unrestrained, counterproductive emotion and the other distinguished by a rational, problem-solving attitude. You can always tell the difference by the tone of voice, one grating, the other easy on the ears.

Like the rest of us in gripe mode, my neighbor CEO honestly sees it that way, truly believes he's right. And, like many of us, he doesn't even know he's in that mode. To a person doing the griping, it's as natural as clouds, rightful as free speech in America.

Why do people complain? What's the root cause?

They're powerless—or they think they are when they're actually not.

Why is that a problem?

Because powerlessness corrupts—to invert that famous dictum ("Power corrupts…").

One, powerlessness corrupts by distorting the complainer's view of the situation. Without knowing it they've left themselves out of the picture—which, if you get sucked in by the complainer's account, you might not notice.

Two, powerlessness corrupts by laying all the responsibility on the other party. It's all their fault. That's the problem with my neighbor CEO's accusatory stance toward the corporate staff.

Three, powerlessness corrupts by resulting in a lack of emotional honesty—one could even say a breach of integrity. Unconscious or not, complaining/griping is a cover-up. It's a smoke screen thrown up to hide a plain if painful truth: this situation is beyond me.

So what is the value of griping? Zero. Or close to it.

Instead of belly-aching, it pays to know when you're in gripe mode or about to drop into it—and stop yourself or switch into problem-solving mode.

It pays to admit, first of all to yourself, "I'm at a loss," even if it hurts your ego.

It pays, whether a situation is objectively beyond your direct control or conceivably within it, to control your emotional reactions.

It pays to recognize your part—if not in creating the problem, then in possibly doing something about it.