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Rise above the complain/blame spiral at work

Newsletter Feature Articles

Rise above the complain/blame spiral at work

Jenn Shallvey

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Complain much?

Are you ever in conversations with someone who complains or blames? Are you a complainer / blamer yourself?  I think we all have our moments of gripe, whinge, annoyance. And yes we all feel a bit better when we are heard and have permission to express our experience. I am not talking about constructive dialogue or balanced discussion. I am talking verbal assault on the senses without any regard for the other side or situation.
 
I have my fair share of pet peeves that if you catch me on a bad day I will rant about.  Then I usually move on. What about you?  I also have days, many more, where I admit from an external perspective it’s like wearing rose coloured glasses. No matter what comes my way I see the positive, seek understanding and show compassionate empathy.
 
Though sometimes we don’t move on. In fact sometimes our norm becomes the complaint.  You may recognize this pattern in some you know-even yourself. If you ask someone how they are doing you get the story.  There is often only one perspective and it is about what is bad, wrong, not working in the world.  If this is the only default position a person has then it can get really frustrating for both.
 

At work

Nowhere is this complain / blame spiral more prevalent than in workplaces. Some people seem to make it their mission to complain, blame and point the finger at everyone except themselves.  Instead of taking action there is an expectation that someone else will fix things for them, it’s not their fault, it’s the company, their boss, their coworkers etc. It’s a one way street.
 
Yet this person who fell into the complain-blame spiral did not start that way when they joined the company. In fact it is NOT our default position to be this person. Somehow, somewhere along the way, something happened. This person chose this path of relating and it stuck. Why they chose this behaviour and why it works for them will vary from person to person.
 
I know. Because I have been there. I have been the person caught up in this victim trap until I realized that the only one responsible for my behaviour was me. Not an easy place to be. This article is not to share my story though. I at least say that I can relate to the fact that at times we can experience this.  What is interesting is how our complain-blame spiral can be fueled by our environment and others around us. Also it is worth observing where this pattern protects us or holds us back.
 

Why complain and blame?

I am choosing to write about this topic not so we can share our frustration. On the contrary I wish to explore how we can help others and ourselves when we are in the complain/blame spiral.  Why? Because as long as we take sides in business we create conflict. Until we set the intent to actually work together irrespective of our differences it will be a difficult road.
 
From my perspective I always believe that when a company hires a person that there is a mutually agreeable starting point. In the beginning, both the employee and employer WANT, NEED and RESPECT each other. Both parties are positive about starting the relationship. 
 
Then what happens?   A myriad of reactions.  The company will experience cycles of growth, plateaus and even downturns.  The company will change CEO, management, merge, acquire, downsize.  Effectively the company is never static.  What the employee signed up for is not always the same.
 
Likewise an individual goes through an equivalent cycle of ups and downs. The employee will react or respond to the company cycles constructively or not.  The employee will have their own separate life and personal growth journey affecting beliefs, values and choices. 
 
Even more challenging is when a person owns their own business or works independently. The company is intricately linked to who they are as a person.  So this makes it even more difficult to step out of the complain / blame spiral because essentially it is self directed.
 
Sometimes the company and individual coincide. Sometimes the two diverge. I believe it is when the two diverge that people can get into the complain-blame trap at work.  They don’t realise that they do it. Then the next thing you know their friends and coworkers are either ignoring them or saying do something.
 

Rising above

I write today because the ultimate way to truly help someone is to empower them to take action in their own world.  This is not easily done. The balance between maintaining a sense of relationship and boundaries is always challenging.
 
To address the situation is to go beyond the surface. Whilst the behaviour is what we can see, the causes are often far deeper and more intricate.  What the person is doing and acting like is often a persona or mask covering up what is really going on.  What is below may also relate nothing to what the person is focusing on in their complain / blame spiral.
 
It is therefore from this point of view that I suggest you consider the following as you navigate the world of work and the complain / blame spiral.

  • Consider separately and together the relationship aspects – you, other person, company.
  • Start with you. Check internally to find out why this person’s behaviour, actions, comments affect you. Then determine whether this is a factor.
  • Seek to understand where the other person is coming from.  Step in their shoes and see the world from their perspective.
  • Listen with objective empathy. Essentially keep your boundaries clear but show the person that you care and do so by lending an ear.
  • Look out for other concerns. Sometimes a person in this type of situation is actually struggling at a deeper level. You may be the one person that they feel they can trust. Respect this trust and ask if they are able to get help either in the company or outside to sort out their challenge.
  • Focus on action.  Listening is great. Hearing the person is better. The next thing you can really do is help the person focus on action. Action may be to get help. Action may be something else. But the key question you can always ask is “What are you going to do about it?”  If you have sensitively listened and heard the person this type of response will be received better.
  • Check in with your intuition. Of course I need to mention this. Sometimes you can sense what is needed and how to proceed. If you are comfortable with working with your intuitive self then tune in and discover what else can help that you can do.

What if these efforts go nowhere or worse go in the opposite direction?

  • Disengage. Yes I said disengage. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. When this is the case it is important to maintain your self and so not engaging with the complainer / blamer unless you have to will work temporarily.
  • Seek advice / support. If you are required to deal with the person as part of your job then speak to a mentor or other person in confidence. Find out how you can better navigate the situation specifically. Perhaps you may involve another person in some of your conversations.
  • Escalate. The last resort, really! I only say this in case the complain / blame verges on harrasment or misconduct. Then it's a phone call or visit to human resources for a chat.

I can't promise that the complain / blame spiral will go away. But maybe you might find you too are having less complaining / blaming and creating more positive experiences at work. 

So I invite you to think about this note. I invite you to observe your own patterns and how you respond or react to situations. See if you can catch yourself in the moment and choose the action that best serves you and others. You have the power of choice on your side. What can you do?