July 30, 2006 in Work

Discontentment in the trenches

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I won’t go into the specific details of what happened at work to cause my potential resignation without having another job lined up — but one of the major contributing factors was the level of whining at work by colleagues. Now I’m not going to pretend like I never participated in any of the bitch fests (everyone does at some point in their tenure with an organization). However, the real difference is that if the reason of the moan has direct impact on my ability to do my job, instead of just whining about something, I try and think of a protential solution that would be a win win for employees and management. Now if management is not receptive even if the alternative makes good business sense, then that’s a whole other ballgame. One then has to decide for themselves whether it makes good sense to remain loyal to the organization. Because really, life is too short to be subjected to a bitchfest every day. It is simply not good for ones mental health and general outlook on life.

Good moaning: how whining at work can be productive
By Lucy Kellaway
Financial Times, Published: July 17 2006 03:00 | Last updated: July 17 2006 03:00
The last time I had my highlights done, my hairdresser told me he had just hired a life coach. This coach, he said as he slapped colour on to sections of my hair, was brilliant and was helping him work on his integrity.
The news troubled me for two reasons. First, I don’t want my hairdresser to work on his integrity. One of the things I most like about him is the way he throws integrity to the wind and tells me that I look wonderful. Every time the tin foil comes off he exclaims over how the gold has warmed up the silver – in defiance of the harsh truth that the yellowish dye has covered up a bit more of the rampaging grey.
It was also troubling because it made me wonder if there is anyone left in the world without a coach.
A colleague in the US tells me that even students now have career coaches. Most of my acquaintances in business seem to have executive coaches. And two of my friends have recently gone a step further – they have become coaches.
I even have a coach myself, although how this came about I’m not sure as I don’t pay the man and have never met him. He is called Sean McPeat and has taken it upon himself to send me monthly coaching e-mails.
His most recent message is all about moaning. This is a subject that I know a lot about after decades as a practitioner.
Sean’s concern is to help me eradicate moaners from my team and turn them into a team of “pro-active do-ers”. He tells me about one German company where moaning has been made illegal. “Lucy – how many people would be left in your company if you had a ‘3 Moans And You’re Out’ policy? Not many maybe?” He then signs off “To your success. Sean”.
Sean is right. There would be precious few people left in my office if moaning were outlawed. Yet what he doesn’t grasp is that these would not be ones I care to work with. I know just three colleagues who never, ever moan and all are slightly spooky –
I wouldn’t trust any of them an inch.
Moaning is an expression of pain and misery, or at least of fed-upness. It is part of the human condition as seen in offices. Generally, it comes without any suggestion of remedy and is entirely negative.
But this does not make it a bad thing; as a general rule, if you take the negative away, the positive means much less. And the simple act of moaning (if done correctly, and I’ll explain how in a minute) can even lessen the fed-upness a bit.
While a little moaning can be good, a great deal is always awful. People who moan a lot are a bore to themselves, and lethal to others. In fact, I find heavy-moaning workmates even more toxic than ones who are lazy, spiteful or back-stabbing. Moaning is a bit like salt in the diet. You need some of it to bring out the taste in your food. Yet too much is fatal.

So the question that Sean should be asking is not how to eliminate moaning, but how to get the most out of moaning, both for the moaner and for the moanee.
The first step is to set quotas.
I think moaning should take up between 2 per cent and 5 per cent of the day, so that in an eight-hour day between 10 and 24 minutes should be devoted to a good moan. Anyone who is regularly over the upper limit should consider cutting back. Though if something really awful happens one day, you may exceed it so long as you make up for it by under-moaning on other days.
For the moaner, I have three tips to improve the quality of the experience. The first is to try to make it funny.
A moan with a few sarky jokes attached is a pleasing thing. It makes your moaning less depressing and will make you more popular among moanees.
The second is to vary the content. People who bang on obsessively about how there is nothing nice to eat in the canteen or how much work they have got to do, or how unappreciated they feel, are just boring. I have a wide variety of things I can moan about, and flit from one to another quite effortlessly.
The third is to pick your moanee with care. Moaning only really works between people at the same level in the hierarchy. Moaning upwards is dangerous and only advisable if you also have a constructive suggestion to make.
Moaning downwards is always a bad idea. As you will be paid more and have control over those below you, they are not going to be impressed at your catalogue of woes. The best people to moan to are ones who reciprocate with moans of their own. Mutual moaning can be good – but can also be dangerous if you egg each other on into a downward moaning spiral. The best moaning partners moan towards a sort of closure. You moan, the other person moans, you both say: what a nightmare. And then you say: ah well. And then back to work.
From the moanee’s point of view, being moaned to can be nice. I quite like it when people whose lives and jobs I had thought gilded embark on a moan. It makes me feel better by contrast.
However, the most important weapons for the moanee are defensive. Listening to too much moaning saps the energy and infects you with their disaffection. Given this risk, you can afford to be ruder to moaners than you might otherwise be. To silence them you can start looking at your watch. Or stand up, or start typing. Say “oh dear”, but without conviction.
And if this fails there is another tip for an exhausted moanee. Tell the moaner to hire a coach. It will cost them dear, but it might get them off your back.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

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