A fortune cookie reminded me recently of a topic I have been wanting to cover in this column. It said: “You can’t expect to be a lucky dog if you’re always growling.”

Lawyers are in the business of complaining in some ways. We write, edit and file complaints in court, object during depositions, arguments and trials to questions posed, positions taken and portrayals of our clients and we file motions aimed at achieving relief by recounting the misdeeds of our opponents. These are necessary components of an adversarial system. A competent advocate must advance the client’s cause and point out any wrongs committed.

In many firms and in-house legal departments, however, the complaining does not stop there. Associates complain about partners, and vice versa, and everyone complains about the clients. Huddles are formed for the sole purpose of venting. When I was in private practice, a colleague was rather viciously and publicly flogged by a managing partner, and an impromptu dinner was arranged by his fellow associates as a show of support. The evening disintegrated into a prolonged mutual tirade about the treatment of employees at the firm, which was routinely disrespectful and mean. If I added up the time spent moaning about the toxic environment, I am certain it would seem, in retrospect, like a huge waste of time that could have been used more productively to hone my skills, heighten my profile, get more clients, look for another job and do more of what I enjoy.

Spending precious time grousing increases our hours at work, an unintended consequence if the subject of the gripe is work. In every place I have ever been, there is someone who stays away from the mainstream culture of complaining and remains focused on why we are all there—productivity. Look around your office. Is there someone like that? Does that person seem calmer, more in control and professional? How can that be a model to you?

Complaining has its time and place and can be used effectively to address and resolve workplace issues, hazards and inequities. A targeted, specific grievance is not the type of complaining we are looking at here—it is the generalized, repetitive, “I complain therefore I am” attitude that we are interested in, because there are dangers in devoting too much of your time to this particular activity regardless of the position you hold.

Employers benefit from paying attention to the atmosphere in the workplace because malcontents reduce production and employees should take stock of how daily growling is standing in the way of being “lucky dogs,” or at least happier ones.

Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report, issued in 2013, surveyed workers about their jobs between 2008 and 2010 to provide “insights into what leaders can do to improve employee engagement and performance in their companies.” According to the report, the most important decision a company can make is who to hire as a manager. Horrible bosses lead to disgruntled employees who affect the productivity of everyone around them.

Gallup found that, “Of the approximately 100 million people in America who hold full-time jobs, 30 million (30 percent) are engaged and inspired at work, so we can assume they have a great boss. At the other end of the spectrum are roughly 20 million (20 percent) employees who are actively disengaged. These employees, who have bosses from hell that make them miserable, roam the halls spreading discontent. The other 50 million (50 percent) American workers are not engaged. They’re just kind of present, but not inspired by their work or their managers.” A copy of the survey can be downloaded at www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx.

Complaining can also affect our mental health, according to Guy Winch, who wrote about the subject for Psychology Today in an article called “The Squeaky Wheel,” where he differentiates between results-driven (good) complaining and pointless venting. He writes, “When we have so many dissatisfactions and frustrations, yet believe we’re powerless to do much about them or to get the results we want, we are left feeling helpless, hopeless, victimized, and bad about ourselves. Obviously, one such incident won’t harm our mental health, but we have so many complaints, this scenario happens many times a day. This accumulation of frustration and helplessness can add up over time and impact our mood, our self-esteem, and even our general mental health.”

A highly successful, intelligent, intuitive and resourceful client I worked with identified complaining as her number one energy drainer. She said it drags her down, emanates negativity, feels bad, puts her in a negative loop, and imposes a victim mentality. The subjects complained of started with mundane things and mild irritants and eventually turned to more important or pervasive issues. As she put it, “We start small with laundry, move in to work and then family members.” She acknowledged that complaining about others took the focus away from herself, and that she never felt good after a gripe session, even though it seemed like a bonding experience when it started. In addition, she noted the spiraling effect of complaining. Over time, she developed strategies to nip complaining in the bud. Another client had a problem with a complaining co-worker. Like second-hand smoke, his bellyaching was affecting her. Her sense of well-being and accomplishment were constantly compromised by the interruptions of Mr. Miserable. Although neither client came to coaching to deal with complaining, these energy drainers were standing in the way of productivity, feeling good and achieving short and long term goals.

If complaining is draining your energy or derailing your staff, here are strategies to help:

  • If you are an employer, download and read “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders.” It has information on what drives employee engagement and examples of “what the best do differently.”
  • Gather data. This is often a first step in dealing with behaviors. Be mindful and keep track, in writing, of how often you complain or are approached by someone who wants to do it with you. Numbers are persuasive and when you see in black and white how much time is devoted to this exercise in powerlessness, you will be motivated to take next steps.
  • Find ways to shift from a complaining communication to an appreciative one—for example, replace “I have to pick up the kids” to “I get to pick up the kids.” Keep in mind the proverb, “Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.”
  • Start a gratitude journal. Begin and end your days with three things you are grateful for in your life. Just as my client found herself in a domino effect with complaining, so it goes with gratitude and you can create a spiral upward. As Oprah Winfrey said, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”

Go to the website www.acomplaintfreeworld.org. There, you can order a bracelet or download a free widget to track your progress. The motto of the organization is a quote from Maya

Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
Finally, think about what you want to attract more of in your life and who you want to be. Back to the fortune cookie, if you wag your tail instead of growl, good people will gravitate toward you rather than back off.


Reprinted with permission from the June 9, 2014 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.