How About Not Complaining For A Change?

ImageThis weeks post is by MSc Brand Leadership alumna Patricia Elenes.

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about this book she was reading, A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen. It challenges people to stop complaining for 21 days, by using a simple bracelet to monitor themselves. How it works: you wear the bracelet on one wrist and commit to stop complaining. If you slip up, you change your bracelet to your other wrist and start over.

At first I thought that vowing to quit complaining was too much effort for something that really isn’t hurting anyone. And after all, isn’t it better to get things off your chest? There are always things to complain about and keeping them bottled up inside is not going to make them go away. Plus, a part of me kept thinking it was just some clever way to sell bracelets.

But somehow the idea stuck with me. I started paying more attention to all the complaining going on around me, including to the negativity coming from myself. I’ve always thought of myself as a positive, optimistic person, but I realized how much complaining we all engage in on a daily basis.

I am sure that we have all found ourselves in the middle of a weird complaining contest, in which we start competing to see who had to deal with the most annoying customer, who had the toughest commute, who has the most demanding boss, who has to stay the latest at the office. It is part of our modern society – and it does not help at all in fixing whatever is wrong. The idea behind the movement to stop complaining is that, by constantly talking about what is wrong, we keep our energies focused on the negative, instead of finding solutions or even noticing the good things in our lives.

Now of course, “stop complaining” does not mean we should just keep quiet about whatever is wrong or unfair in our lives, or to ignore the problems around us simply because we are “focusing on the positive”. Rather, it means to turn the conversation into something more positive. To celebrate the good, find solutions for whatever needs fixing. This applies in all areas of our lives, but can be especially useful when talking about our careers.

A former boss once gave me a very valuable piece of advice, which I have heard time and again as proven career wisdom: do not bring problems to your boss, bring solutions. Whenever you have a problem on your hands, instead of going directly to your superior with them, take a moment to come up with ways to solve the problem. Then, take the solutions to your boss. Even if they are not perfect, it leads to a much more productive exchange than just pointing out whatever’s not working.

The advice about shifting our attitudes toward things, about being positive and focusing on the good, may not be anything new. But I think this approach about trying to eliminate complains is very practical. At least for me, changing my behaviour is sometimes easier than changing the way I think (and it’s often the first step). So by actively making the decision to stop complaining about things – and stop engaging in complaining marathons – we can start to focus more on the solutions, rather than the problems.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of the basic chit chat about how awful the weather’s been we switched to talking about our lovely morning coffee, our exciting weekend plans or an interesting story we read online? As hard as it is sometimes to kick the complaining habit, it is definitely worth trying. So, how about we try not to complain today, for a change?

To learn more about A Complaint Free World, visit


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Patricia Elenes says:

    You are right, the word “complaining” can mean more than just whining about something, it is sometimes the proper course of action to solve an unpleasant situation (like complaining to the waiter that your food is not what you ordered is the way to solve the problem and get the right dish).
    However, my point still stands: sometimes we complain too much about things that are either out of our control (like the weather, the traffic, or someone else’s attitude) or about things that could be solved by action and not just by voicing them (like not being able to find a job, feeling sick, or noticing a bump in a work process). So, in the case when you can do nothing about it, perhaps it is better to shift your focus from the things that can’t be fixed towards something else; and when there are solutions, you can do something to solve the problem instead of just complaining.
    Of course, everyone needs to vent and talk about their problems, and sometimes that is the first step toward fixing those problems. As I point out in the post, I do not mean that we should sit in silence and bear whatever’s bothering us quietly, but rather to find solutions or shift our focus, depending on the nature of the problem. If the weather’s awful, you can change your plans or do something indoors. If you are being bullied, telling someone is the first step, but it will also be followed by more action in order to resolve the conflict. What I do mean is that sometimes we get into the habit of just complaining about things instead of doing something about them, or on just talking about the negative things in our lives instead of appreciating the positive. So to me, the call to stop complaining is more about finding solutions and shifting the focus rather than about bearing quietly with everything that goes wrong.

  2. Markus Wohlfeil says:

    While the idea sounds nice in theory (After all, everyone wants to live in a world that full of harmony and peace.), it is unfortunately also very naive – and partially based on a false premise – as all those positive thinking solutions based on simple formula solutions. (This one even sounds a bit like “The Secret” that made the rounds with similar argument a few years ago)

    Firstly, there are many forms of “complaining” that can’t lumped together under the same roof and treated in the same manner. Surely, there is grumpy complaining about anything, because one fields ill-treated by neighbours, colleagues, employers, society, the world and beyond. Here, it sounds easy to imply that taking it easier and to look at the bright side of life would be much more beneficial. But there is also the “complaining” as the expression of one’s personal dissatifaction or frustration with a particular situation, which may be justified or not. Well, looking to positive of the situation may relief some stress; at least temporarily – but it hardly addresses the underlying issue, which will break out more regularly and more violently the more it remains unintended. Finally, the actual complaint about a perceived or experienced injustice such as having sold a broken product, experienced a poor service delivery or being the victim of false accusations or fraud or even bullying. Well, what is the good side of bullying? That at least someone pays enough attention to you to pick on you?

    Of course, life is so much easier without complaining. For the complaining individual because complaining is intrinsically linked with frustrations, stress, aggession and the feeling of being wronged. And who needs that? But even more so for the target of the complaint, whether it is the individual, the organisation or society at large, as it threatens to disturb the harmoneous, quiet system that has made life so easy.

    The false premise is that a complaint and complaining is always some negative. Well, it’s inconvient and at times annoying. And some people lose sight of what is worth complaining against and what isn’t – or become addicted to complaing or so it seems… But first and foremost a complaint (and complaining) is a clear indication that something is wrong or not as smooth as those people with a close vested interest would like to believe. Like a devil’s advocate it provides an alternative perspective on things and questions in a nasty way aspects of product, organisation, system, society, political ideology or way-of-doing-things. What happens if we not complaint when we are constantly the one doing extra hours and doing the work, but another person always takes the credit and reaps the rewards? Isn’t bringing a solution to rectify the situation, as proposed, not also just a complaint?!? It’s packaged differently, but in its pure essence it is a complaint about an injustice. Moreover, the article implies that the solution you provide is an amicable one with your colleague (who has to give up his/her “ill-deserved” perks) and your boss that makes every party. How likely outside training seminars or textbook cases is that really to happen? If you are the victim of bullying in school, how likely is that you find an amicable solution in agreement with the bully and without launching a serious complaint???

    Also, in a different context, complaining about a faulty product that raise awareness for a general flaw in the product design or service delivery. If you don’t complain and focus on the positive side, the flaw won’t be addressed and such flaws will spread like disease. Often, a complaint is not the cause of a problem or the problem itself (as positive thinkers or even management literature proclaim) but merely a symptom of much bigger problem. When you find on day a small lump, you can choose to ignore it and see the positive side, but the problem doesn’t go away. Instead, it might be nothing, but it might also spread to a full grown cancer tumour and eventually kill you. A rash may be inconvenient, but it could also be an early syptom of meningitis. Likewise, a complaint about poor product performance can be a nuisance, but it could also be indicator of a bigger design flaw that may creep into further product developments if not addressed – and lead to faulty breaks in a Toyota or, because Mircosoft like so many decided to outsource customer service to have such nuisance handled by a third party, to a severely flawed operating software design (see Windows Vista, 7 and 8…) that increasingly weakens its competitive position.

    On an individual doesn’t complaint permantly about one particular issue because s/he is miserable primadonna or attention-seeker or whatever. The person has (or perceives to have) major grievances with a situation. The grievances can be justified because there is a flaw in the system and feels increasingly frustrated by one’s powerlessness in changing the situation. Someone regularly complaining about a particular issue could be a whistleblower who is genuinely concerned about serious consequences to individuals, the organisation or society if a way-of-doing-things isn’t addressed or changed. But it might also an indication of a general unhappiness and frustration of life has so far panned out so far and is developing further. Just looking on the bright side of life or the positive things is merely a quick fix and becoming increasingly ineffective as the primary underlying issue – the real cause – hasn’t been solved. Indeed, regular complaining with strong, at times explosive-aggressive levels of frustration coupled with a feeling of alienation and isolation are strong indicators for depression (as opposed to stereotypical reclusive sadness). Positive thinking doesn’t help or solve depression. It only leads to further reclusive behaviour, frustration and isolation.

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