You should complain about it

Hello everyone! Mondays, am I right?

This is a letter about complaint and complaining, and why I think you should do more of it at work, so having it arrive on a Monday morning seems especially topical.

This letter is a continuation of the Total Work series (Life as Nonproductive Act, Burnout as Acedia), looking into the effect of work on our lives. You don’t have to read the others to understand this letter, but it pairs well with “Burnout as Acedia”.

The sort of complaining I want to talk about is when you express feelings of dissatisfaction with a situation to someone who is not the subject of your complaint. e.g. when a project has gone badly and you need to vent about it to someone who was not directly involved, or was not responsible for it going badly, and has no more power to influence the situation than you do. The sort of complaining where the point of the complaint is to have the conversation, not to effect a change directly.

Backstory

Before I start, let me give you some context and briefly stan for a podcast I like: Journal Entries is a (rather badly named) podcast in which academics who work in philosophy and/or cognitive science talk to you about a paper they’ve written that they like, and they do so in a way that is almost always interesting and approachable by a general audience. I’m a huge fan.

The most recent journal entry was by Kathryn Norlock on her paper “Can’t Complain”. Kathryn Norlock is a philosopher of ethics who works on the problems of moral emotions and how to do ethics in a non-ideal world, so is obviously super relevant to my interests. The paper “Can’t Complain” itself is also good, but one of the things that I really liked in the podcast that doesn’t get quite so much time in the paper itself was the role of complaining in the workplace, and how complaining to your coworkers can help forge sympathy and solidarity between you.

Part of why I liked this is that I worked at Google. Google has an internal philosophy of “Don’t complain, fix things”. This is, on the face of it, a proactive and positive philosophy that empowers people to make changes in the workplace.

It’s not. It’s a horrible, coercive, tool of abuse that is a fairly central part of why it only took me six months at Google before I burned out hard and had to quit for the sake of my mental health.

The problem with an attitude of “Don’t complain, fix things” is that it means you can’t point out problems without taking on an obligation to fix them. This means that you can’t point out problems that are too large for you to fix, and that you’re reluctant to point out even problems that you could in theory fix because it increases your workload.

The result, at least in the part of Google that I was in, was very much a culture where people had learned not to notice problems. I am very bad at not noticing problems, so this didn’t work out so well for me.

I can imagine versions of “Don’t complain, fix things” which look more like “Safety is everyone’s responsibility”, but they all start with empowering people rather than creating norms and allowing people to point out problems healthily. “Don’t just complain, complain in ways that get heard, and here are the ways in which we empower you to take action to change the problems you perceive, possibly by passing them on to someone who has sufficient power to fix structural problems.”

It’s possible that other parts of Google the norm is like this, I don’t know, but I rather doubt it. Based on all the news coming out of Google since I left (and, to be honest, things I should have picked up on before hand too), it does not seem like a company that wants to give its employees the power to change its behaviour.

Complaining Is Good, Actually

A prevalent attitude, and one that Norlock’s paper is explicitly criticising, is that people don’t want to complain unless there’s a possibility of actually doing something about it - of changing the thing you’re complaining about. Complaining is supposed to be an intervention towards fixing the problem, and anything else is a sign of weakness, of burdening someone else with your problems. You’re not supposed to complain “uselessly”, because it doesn’t do any good.

But complaining about a problem is doing something, and it has many good consequences even if it never solves the underlying issue.

The most obvious one is that even if you can’t change the thing being complained about, you can often mitigate it. There’s the old joke that people complain about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it. In fact, people do a lot about the weather: They stay indoors, they dress warmly, they bring an umbrella. If they get cold, they turn on the heating, or have a hot drink. They change out of their wet clothes.

And they complain about it, and that in and of itself a helpful thing.

Complaining about the weather allows us to change one of the most important things about the weather: How we feel about it. Complaining often feels like unloading a burden, and it allows us to achieve shared feeling: Before complaining, you knew that the situation was bad, and you assumed that the others around you also knew that but you weren’t sure. After complaining together, you know that they think it’s bad too, and they know that you know, and you know that they know, etc. The object of complaint has reached shared understanding in a way that it wasn’t before. You know you’re not alone in feeling bad about it.

Sharing your pain this way is a bonding activity. When you complain to each other, you increase the social ties between you, because you each know and trust each other a little bit more than you did before. You’ve shared feeling, and you’ve demonstrated that you are someone who it is safe to share feelings with.

It may even lead to more bonding. Suppose you and a coworker come in from the pouring rain, and you complain about the weather together. You might just leave it at that, or maybe one of you will say “I’m going to go get some tea to warm up. Want to join?”, and the resulting conversation will begin a new or better friendship with them.

Complaining provides a way to feel better with the situation, and to better connect with people, and these things are both constructive.

This is particularly good in a work context because of a problem I wrote about over on the notebook blog: It’s very important, but also very hard, to be friends with your coworkers. Complaint helps mitigate this by giving you something to bond over: Work kinda sucks, but you’re all in it together.

Does complaining fix things?

I talked about the problem with a “Don’t complain, fix things” dynamic, but I must emphasise: Fixing things is good, and you should do it if you can.

Does complaining fix things? Well, short answer: No. Longer answer: Not really, but…

Complaining, in and of itself, is unlikely to ever fix anything… other than your mood, your social relationships with your coworkers, and your shared understanding of the problems that everyone is facing. Little things like that.

Also, it turns out, those are all really useful things to have if you are going to fix anything else.

If you are one person with a problem, you have very little leverage. If you are ten people with the same problem, you have rather a lot more leverage… unless you don’t know that you are ten people with the same problem, in which case you are ten people who are not doing anything about it because you don’t think you have the leverage to fix the problem.

Complaining does not make much of a difference, but it creates the conditions in which you can all work together to make a difference.

What you then do with that is a rather larger topic than I intend to cover in this letter. I just want to point out that complaining often sets the stage to ensure that fixing things is possible, and as a result a norm against complaining is a norm that prevents fixing things: Recall my anecdote about Google, and how good everyone had become at not noticing problems. You can’t fix problems you don’t notice.

Complaining Might Mitigate Burnout

There is one thing in particular that complaining might help fix: burnout.

Complaining effectively to your coworkers, and having them complain to you in turn, is probably a significant defence against burnout.

I don’t have more than weak anecdotal evidence for this, let alone empirical evidence, but the theory seems sound and I think it’s true:

  • Social bonds are a good mitigation against burnout in general, because they give you something concrete and personal to care about.

  • In “Burnout as Acedia” I suggested that one major cause of burnout was caring and not being able to act on that caring. Complaining is a form of acting on that caring. It’s perhaps not enough, but it’s a lot more than nothing.

  • A culture where problems and behaviour are complained about is more likely to shift towards good behaviour, reducing burnout.

  • In particular it gives you a tool to start to fight back against pluralistic ignorance - norms that everyone privately rejects but participates in enforcing. These are often bad, burnout inducing norms.

Complaining definitely isn’t enough to fix burnout on its own, but my inclination is that a healthy complaint culture will burn people out less (and has enough benefits separately from that that it’s worth implementing even if this doesn’t work).

Complaining helps others

Given that complaining is good, you might altruistically want other people to do it, but it might feel selfish to do it yourself, right?

Well, consider this: If you don’t do it, why would anyone else?

I argued in Being an example to others that being a little selfish is good because it creates norms in which everyone is permitted to engage in self-care and setting healthy boundaries. Complaint very much works like this. Complaining is intrinsically social, so by complaining you are automatically giving others permission to complain in turn.

But even beyond this complaining helps others, because it lets them share in your pain. If you express something that’s been bothering you to someone it helps people realise that it’s not just them. “It bothers me when…” will often be met with “Oh! I thought it was just me!” - it’s fairly rare to have completely non shared complaints, and by sharing you are doing people a favour by getting these things out in the open.

Homework

So, complaining in the workplace is good. Where to start?

Well, I’m aware that this is a massively self-interested suggestion, but I think you should start by sharing a link to this letter with your colleagues.

Kevin Simler has a good article about Sermons, in which he explains that the thing you learn from a sermon is not the literal contents of the sermon (which you probably already knew) but the fact that everyone else in the room has heard the sermon and is broadly on board with it. As a result, sermons are a great tool for culture change.

So, if you want to create a culture where people are prepared to complain, start by sharing a sermon on the virtues of complaints. Here, I made you one.

If you’re feeling brave, drop it in the company Slack (or local equivalent). If you’re feeling more cautious, try sending it to a couple people you expect to be a sympathetic ear. After you’ve discussed it and found of who is on board, try complaining at each other. See how it goes. You’ll probably feel better for it.

Postscript: Complaining Skilfully

You can skip this bit if you’d like, but I’d like to close by talking about how to complain. Feel free to skip this section if you’re already sold on the concept, but you might find it useful anyway.

One of the reasons why people don’t like complaining is that we all know a complainer: Someone who complains badly, or too much, and generally brings the whole mood down. We very much don’t want to be That Guy.

Norlock acknowledges this possibility in her paper, that complaint might be “excessive, or pointless, or ill-intentioned”, but defends “rather more whinging than one might consider justifiable”. If you’re worried about being That Guy, chances are that you’re quite far on the other side of the optimal level of complaint. She suggests that the solution to this problem is more skillfull complaining. As my esteemed colleague the banana points out, “skilfully” is a contraction of “nonbuzzkillfully”, meaning “without being a buzzkill”, so I think this sounds like an excellent plan.

What does skilful complaining look like? Norlock mostly doesn’t say, so I’ll try to provide some guidelines here.

Skilful complaining is complaining that achieves its good features (possibly improving the situation, making yourself feel better, increased social bonding) without its bad features (emotionally draining for the recipient, makes you seem overly negative). As with all skills, it’s very hard to provide a simple cut and dried rule as to whether complaining is or isn’t skillfull, but I think there are some guidelines I can usefully suggest.

Note that all of this is my best guess based on observed behaviour. My guess is that I’m probably wrong about a lot of it, but that most of it is at least pointing in the right direction.

Consensual complaining

In the podcast, Norlock makes the excellent point that you should never apologise for complaining, because if we’re declaring that complaining is good then we should not spread norms that complaining is bad.

That being said, what you should do is ask before complaining. “I need to get something off my chest, can we talk about it?” - that sort of thing. Usually people will say yes, but asking first gives people the opportunity to say “Actually I’m in the middle of something, can we not?” or make their excuses. Also the way they say yes will give you a hint of how receptive they actually are.

It also is a good way to show consideration, which is both good to do in and of itself and tends to result in your complaints being better received.

Venting vs problem solving

There are, roughly, two modes of complaining - venting and problem solving. Sometimes you’re complaining because you need to get something off your chest. You know what to do about it, or you know that you can’t do anything about it right now, but you need to have a good rant about it. Other times you’re complaining because you have a problem you need addressing and you don’t know how to do it, and you’d like some help with that.

Most complaints are some mix of these two modes, but it’s worth signalling which you’re doing. In particular it’s worth signalling clearly when problem solving is unwelcome. A lot of people’s natural reaction is to try to problem solve, and if you’re going to react badly to that (which in some cases might be reasonable! Especially if you’ve sunk a lot of time into trying to solve the problem already), you should make that clear in advance.

One thing worth bearing in mind though is that being vented at is much harder work than helping someone solve their problems. Also, if you’re open to having your problems solved, your problems might actually get solved. So it’s better to err on the side of inviting problem solving than asking someone to let you vent at them. But sometimes the latter really is what you need, and if so it’s OK, just say so.

I would suggest this: If you find yourself venting about the same problem over and over again, you should probably stop, and see if you can figure out how to treat it as a problem you can solve instead.

Complaining as relationship building

Complaining is very much about the relationship. You are not complaining in general, you are complaining with someone. As such the level of complaining should be appropriate to the level of your relationship with that person, and in a way that allows them to actually engage with you, and you should deliberately cultivate relationships in which you can complain.

One easy bridge here is that a shared situation creates an implied relationship. If you’re both experiencing the same problem, then that gives you license to complain about it together. This is why even strangers complain about the weather, or transport issues: They’re in it together, and are able to complain about it in the context of that temporary relationship. With coworkers, the relationship is a bit less temporary, and you can build on it a little the next time.

Complaining is a good vehicle for trust escalation, which I’ve outlined previously - by complaining to someone, you are showing that you trust them with your complaint. They in turn complain back to you, and you gradually build trust through the medium of shared complaint, at each point showing that you are prepared to trust the other slightly more than you have previously. If at some point you stop escalating trust, the relationship has hit its trust limit (although it may possibly resume escalation if a later shared situation gives you something really good to complain about).

How much to complain

Because complaining happens in the context of a relationship, this also gives a good way to avoid the risk of complaining too much: If you complain to someone about as much as they complain to you, you’re not complaining too much.

It won’t always work out this way. This is a deliberately conservative rule of thumb: If you complain to someone more than they complain to you, that might be fine, but if you both complain about the same amount you’re basically not doing anything wrong. It’s also definitely OK to complain a bit more than the other person does, especially in the short term, as this is the mechanism by which trust escalates.

In particular if something is really bothering you to an unusual degree, you should obviously feel free to ignore this “rule”.

Being complained to

If complaining is good, and reciprocal complaining is important, then one of the key skills of complaining is in being complained to.

Mostly this is the skill of empathetic listening - don’t dismiss what people are saying. Listen to them, acknowledge their suffering. If you think they’re being unfair to someone else, or behaving badly, you can say that certainly, but if you think it’s in some sense just “wrong” for them to feel that way you should probably keep that to yourself.

The skills I talk about in Being safe for others are useful here. If you’re safe for people to say things to, you’re safe to complain to in particular.

Another useful skill for being complained to is to draw people out - ask them what’s bothering, get them to complain. Often being the first who is willing to complain is a good start here.

What to complain about

Ideally you should be able to complain about everything that is bothering you, but chances are that there are a lot of things bothering you, so it’s worth triaging which ones you complain about.

Firstly, it’s always worth engaging in a bit of opportunistic griping. If you’re in a situation which is bad, say so. It’s situational and easy. If nobody else takes it up, you can always quiet back down, but chances are people will enjoy engaging.

Beyond that, I think roughly the things to use when prioritising is that you should complain about the things that are bothering you the most, especially the ones that you think are bothering other people, especially the ones you think are actionable (i.e. fixable), in roughly that order of priority.

The reason for that prioritisation is that if something is bothering you a lot you probably need to talk about it, so it makes sense to take that into account first.

Who to complain to

Selecting who to build your complaining relationships with is a hard problem, in that it reduces to to the general problem of “How do I make friends” and almost all advice on how to make friends is terrible. This is because you should mostly complain to people who you can trust, and this is hard to identify. Fortunately, if you start with small complaints and follow the trust escalation model it doesn’t have to be someone you trust a lot.

The other key feature is that ideally you should complain to people who will actually understand what you’re complaining about. If you’re complaining about something super technical, it’s worth complaining to someone who shares your speciality. Similarly, and depending on circumstances, if you’re a member of a marginalised group it may make sense to find other people who share your or another marginalisation if that at all impacts what you’re complaining about (feel free to disregard this if you’re sure someone is a good ally).

Complaining in groups

A lot of this has been assuming you’re complaining to just a single person. What about complaining in groups?

Honestly… the answer is probably mostly “don’t”. There are a couple of exceptions, but I think don’t is a safe default, because a pattern of complaining in groups is the easiest way to become That Guy (and an even easier way to be seen as that guy).

Some of the exceptions:

  • Situational griping in a group is fine.

  • If you’ve broached the subject with a couple members of the group first and decided you want to raise it collectively, that’s fine too.

  • If the group is specifically for this sort of thing (e.g. a team retrospective) there is more leeway.

  • If the complaint is genuinely critical for the discussion at this time (“actually that thing you’re suggesting is terrible because it affects me in the following way”) it’s a relevant protest rather than “mere” complaint so is also fine.

  • How careful to be depends on the group size. A small group (e.g. you and two other people) is much closer to complaining to one other person than it is to a large group. A very large group you probably shouldn’t complain unless it’s absolutely essential, because it’s easy to take up a lot of time for a lot of people that way if everyone gets to complaining.

It’s also worth reading the room in general - if your complaints are picked up, that’s a good sign, but if they’re not it’s probably worth quieting down and trying again in a smaller setting later.