Throughout my corporate career I looked at complaining as a particularly negative behavior. If I was committed to achieve a goal, that meant I did whatever was required to get it done and I didn’t complain because that was an admission I couldn’t get it done. I was better than that! I remember the entrance to one of my bosses’ offices had a sign “No Whining”. That simple sign confirmed my belief, “Complaining is for losers”.
When I work with teams today, one of the first things I observe is their conversations as a group. Are they polite and orderly? Is everyone participating? What is the level of conflict? How do they handle conflict? Most often, conflict is absent and on the surface the team appears gets on well together. This façade starts to break down when I conduct one on one discussions with each team member to get their perspective on the overall team. When I ask them what is and is not working, I usually get a list of things and people they would like to see fixed, and it is very common to get comments about one or two particular team members who are not pulling their weight or don’t have the team’s best interests at heart. These requests are never shared in the team meeting because the stakes are too high.
Most teams struggle to manage conflict and it shows up in the absence of the conversation, which goes underground and occurs as a back channel amongst select team members. Because it is occurring in the background, it is very difficult for a leader to see this taking place, let alone take action. If they do hear about, it is usually through one on one conversations, and they feel they are left with the responsibility to repair the breakdown between the team members. This typically means the important conversation between the team members is left unaddressed and becomes the norm. This is a bigger problem than most people ever realize.
Bruce Tuckman in 1965 (Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association) created a model describing the behavioral development of a team: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. When a team first comes together, in the Forming stage, the members are exploring what it means to be a team. Storming occurs when the members recognize they have to give up some things to form the team and that resistance leads to conflict as they test the boundaries. New team norms begin to form through the storming and the team moves into the Norming phase when they start to form a tight group with a new collective identity and Performing occurs as they learn to perform successfully together. If conflict is absent, a common story suggests we must have gotten past Storming and are now Norming. This is the big lie. Storming is happening in the background and because it is never surfaced and discussed, the team never gels and progresses to the Norming stage. In essence it becomes stuck as a dysfunctional unit that everyone puts up with because it is easier than dealing with the alternative. Sound familiar?
Let’s go back to complaining, why is it so important? If done well, a complaint is an assertion that a promise has been broken. For this to be true, there has to be mutual agreement on what was promised and what was delivered to satisfy the promise. When a team learns to have this conversation, it opens up the space to talk about the needs and expectations of each member. For example, what is missing, what was promised and that shifts the conversation from one of blame and accusation, to a process discussion. This is the conversation of what is required to make and fulfill a trustworthy promise, the bedrock of a high performing team. If team members are able to talk about it, the team’s performance will improve.
The next time you feel let down and wish to complain, ask yourself, “Did I have a clear promise of what would be delivered?”, “Do I understand what was done to complete the promise?” And the bigger question, “What is missing that leads me to feel let down?” By creating the ability and safe space to answer these questions in a positive conversation with the other party, you are building the team’s capacity to execute effectively by learning what is and is not working. I would change the “No Whining” sign, to read “Complaints Welcome, Let’s Talk”.