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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Complain (to Actually Get What You Want)

The coffee is too hot.
The air conditioning is too cold.
That policy is unfair.
The old way worked better.
I always get the hardest assignments.
My boss never says thank you.

You see the problems in your office—the processes that could be improved, the policies that should be changed, the little annoyances that, over time, turn into big annoyances—and you want them fixed. But no matter how many times you complain, nothing happens. Your objections fall on deaf ears and things stay the same—the way they’ve always been.

Sound familiar?

Well, during my years as both a teammate and a manager, I’ve been the sounding board for (OK, and maybe the occasional source of) complaints at my office, and I’ve learned that there’s a right and wrong way to complain. One way will get you labeled as a whiner—and one will actually get you what you want. So, the next time you have something to complain about, here are my tips for doing the latter.

Consider the Opposite Point of View

Before you let a complaint slip out, take a moment to consider the opposite point of view. Is the office always freezing? Well, the facilities director probably thinks it’s better to be on the cold side, where employees can put on a sweater, than the warmer side, where all employees can do is, well, sweat.

Stuck on something a little more serious, like a newly implemented company policy that you don’t fully support—or understand? Jumping to a poorly thought-out complaint (e.g., “It’s so unfair that we can’t wear jeans every day anymore!”) is the easy way out—but thinking about the true reason something happened (“Well, employees really were crossing the line in their interpretation of the casual dress code”) can help you gain a wider perspective.

If you truly can’t see the reasoning behind it (“No, really—why can we only take time off in half-day increments?”), ask your manager for insight. If he or she can provide a reasonable explanation, you’ll have your answer. And if your manager comes up with an equally questioning response (e.g., “You know, that’s a great point”)? Well, you’ll be able to more effectively form your complaint to take up the chain.

Don’t Cry Wolf

In my office, there’s one employee in particular who’s been labeled “the complainer.” Whether he thinks a new process is inefficient or the new window blinds are letting in too much light, he makes sure that his objections are known to everyone around him.

But while it’s OK—and, in fact, usually encouraged—to point out inefficiencies or ways that things could be better, there’s a big difference between complaining to make improvements and complaining for the sake of, well, complaining. Because when you grumble about anything and everything, it starts becoming hard to distinguish what really deserves attention.

Instead, pick your battles wisely, focusing on the things that are both important (i.e., directly affect you and your job) and changeable (i.e., not the fact that you prefer another brand of coffee over the one that your company has used for the past 20 years). When you voice your complaints strategically, you’ll make much more of an impact.

Cut Back on the Whine

Remember when you were a kid, and you’d shout your complaints to your parents from across the house, drawing out the word “mom” with a few extra o’s for emphasis?

Well, no matter your age, it’s easy to let a bit of that same whining tone into your voice when you approach the subject of your complaints (e.g., “Seriously, why do we have to do this? This is so ridiculous!”). I know—you may assume that, as a professional, you don’t do this—but I say it because I’ve seen it. A lot.

To be on the safe side, check your tone before you voice your grievance. Begin your objection by making sure that it’s a good time for whoever you’re complaining to (read: not when he or she is about to head into a meeting or is packing up for the night). Then, start with a patient, respectful intro, like, “I’ve been noticing something lately that’s been affecting my ability to do my job. Do you have time to chat about it?”

With this, you won’t immediately put your subject on the defensive. Instead, you’ll convey that not only have you thought about it carefully, but that it’s something that you truly think deserves his or her time—which will make him or her much more receptive to your thoughts.

Back Up Your Complaint

It’s easy to complain about something you don’t like; it’s not so easy to come up with a realistic solution to that problem. One of the most frustrating things about being on the receiving end of a complaint is just that: The complainer is often quick to point out a problem, but usually not so ready to suggest a resolution.

To complain most effectively, you’ll need both relevant examples of the problem and a feasible way to fix it. By explaining a few specific ways that something has directly affected you and your teammates, you’ll prove that a problem exists, and by suggesting a solution, you’ll convey that you’re invested in the issue and willing to put in significant effort to address it.

Venting can be cathartic, but if you really want the problem to be addressed, you need to bring it to light the right way. Constantly complaining to your manager or teammate won’t get you far—but respectfully pointing out an issue, explaining how it affects you, and suggesting a possible solution will put you on the fast track to a resolution.

Photo of megaphone courtesy of Shutterstock.

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