My partner Kathy and I recently took a vacation to New York City. To kill time before our flight, we headed to the American Airlines’ Admirals Club.

As we sat enjoying a cocktail, we overheard a conversation an executive was having on the phone. He was angry, and the conversation was full of reasons why other people were to blame for whatever had just happened. Kathy gave me a look and said, “C’mon, let’s move. This guy is too loud.” So, we picked up our bags and moved to the other side of the club where a different executive was sitting. I saw him pull out his phone and had to laugh, because I knew the same thing was about to happen. Sure enough, his conversation starts, and he dives right into pointing fingers at others and making excuses. I nudged Kathy and told her to pay attention – this was the exact same conversation we just heard and that I hear repeatedly.

Conversations focused on complaining about results that didn’t happen, deadlines that weren’t met and placing blame on colleagues or direct reports. Not one of them addressed the systemic issue – accountability. The word was never used, despite the fact that it was the subject of every executive’s conversation. It struck me deeply and got me thinking:

  • How many times has this executive had this exact same conversation?
  • How many times has it happened in their company or their industry, and is it happening every day?
  • How many hours – or even days – have been wasted because they aren’t addressing the underlying issue of accountability?

I shudder to think of the answers, and especially because these are leaders in powerful positions. You could tell by the way they dressed, by the way they spoke. They were articulate yet their conversations were ineffective. They didn’t address the systemic issues that needed to be solved. Instead, they focused on the failings of other individuals.

Is Complaining a Blind Spot for You?

Even seasoned executives like these aren’t really conscious of how quickly and often we complain or place blame. In fact, they were utterly blind to their ineffectiveness in leadership during those conversations. It’s prevalent in corporate culture, but we often don’t see it in ourselves. This is a blind spot I encounter frequently in executive coaching . A blind spot indicates a lack of self-awareness; it’s an area that you are not effective in but think you excel in. We tend to be blind to repeated patterns that give us poor results over and over again. We complain and blame, and we fail to look first and foremost at what we can be doing differently ourselves.

The good news is that once you identify a blind spot, you start to recognize when your behavior is being dictated by it in the moment, and more importantly, overcome it.

Complaining is an Enemy of Accountability

When there is radical accountability in an organization, the types of conversations I overheard in the Admiral’s Club rarely take place. That’s because when a leader is accountable, they are first owning the problem, and then are focused on the solution. They are looking through a lens of “how do we solve this problem,” rather than “who’s to blame for this problem?” Last, they are focused on can we solve this problem in a way that it is permanently solved? It’s not a recurring issue.

Of course, we encounter all kinds of problems in our professional and personal lives. Some are fires that have to be put out immediately while others are longer term problems that you may not even know how to begin to tackle right now. What’s true for both of those scenarios is that the goal is to fix the problem so that the level of recurrence slows down or is eliminated completely. The first step is to try to understand why you keep having the same fire drills again and again. Then you can work to solve the problem at its core rather than just dousing flames each time the issue ignites.

If your workplace culture is focused on what goes wrong and places blame on individual contributors, that’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Rather than focus on the individual, it is more effective to look to the organization to see where the breakdown occurs. When we are accountable as individuals, we take responsibility for our thoughts and understand how they affect our moods and in turn influence our behaviors. Complaining is just one of many behaviors that stand in the way of getting the results we strive for.

The Negatives of Complaining

We tend to complain because it can often seem easier than finding a solution. But constantly focusing on the negative doesn’t serve you, your team or your organization. Complaining increases stress and anxiety, which gets in the way of your ability to think clearly and perform at your best. Over time, stress poses a number of threats to your physical and emotional well-being.

In addition, negativity can easily impact others through what is known as emotional contagion. That means that it not only affects you, but also your family, friends and coworkers. It can create a downward spiral that manifests in a victim mentality, pessimism and even a sense of hopelessness. There is no learning that comes from complaining; there’s just defensiveness, anger and fear.

The Positives of Complaining

There are some cases where complaining works as an ice breaker among strangers. Think about the last time you were waiting in a long line. Did you spark up a conversation with the person next to you and commiserate on the delay? A conversation that begins as a mutual complaining session can establish a common mood, and quickly transition to more pleasant topics.

Related: Complaining: A Healthy or Harmful Habit?

When we hear complaints during a coaching session, it often signals a door opening for making positive steps toward change. Once you’ve identified that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel right in your life, it’s time to explore that more. Perhaps you’ve been putting off having a difficult conversation with a colleague or you know you are right at the edge of burnout; that self-awareness is the first step toward a solution.

How to Make a Responsible Complaint

Complaining, if handled tactfully, can also spark action. These are what we call “effective complaints.” These types of complaints identify a breakdown and are designed to repair the problem, not point fingers.

Here’s an example:

Scenario: You asked your assistant to book your travel accommodations a week ago and haven’t heard back.

Step 1: Check to make sure that your understanding of the request you made matches the understanding of the person that received your request.

“My understanding was that you were going to check my calendar and book my flight and hotel with our travel agent for the conference at the end of the month. Is that accurate?”

Step 2: After confirming that there was a shared understanding of the request, establish that what was agreed to has not been fulfilled (i.e. identify the breakdown). This approach shifts the conversation from an assessment to an assertion, making it possible to move forward. 

“You haven’t contacted the travel agent yet?” 

“No, sorry. It’s been a busy week.”

Step 3: State the damage that has been done as a result of this commitment not being met.

“I have to be honest with you. I’m not happy about this. I’m under a lot of pressure to get my presentation for the conference done, and I need your help to ensure the travel portion is taken care of. I don’t want to risk the possibility of a late arrival or not fulfilling my obligations as a speaker since that would be detrimental to my reputation.”

Step 4: Make a new request (see 6 elements of an effective request).

“Can you please get in touch with the travel agent this morning and let me know the flight and hotel have been finalized no later than noon today?” 

“Yes. I’ll get on it immediately.” 

This type of complaint that creates a plan for change is unfortunately pretty rare. A Psychology Today study suggests these types of complaints make up fewer than 25 percent of all complaints.

Coaching against Complaining

If I were coaching those executives in the Admiral’s Club, I would have suggested they re-consider the language they were using; asked questions instead of complaining, and developed an action plan to start fixing the problem – the real problem.

I’d start with:

  • Did you make an effective request? That could be where the problem lies. Perhaps the person who you think “failed” didn’t even understand the ask of them.
  • Did you negotiate effectively? Did the person you made the request of understand the full impact on you, them and the company?
  • Did the situation go awry in the fulfillment of the promise, or was there no feedback given once the promise was fulfilled? If so, the cycle starts all over again and you have yet another fire drill on your hands.

By dissecting a problem from the inception to the end result, leaders can begin to assess what the breakdown is, where it occurred and what patterns are repetitive. When everyone involved in the situation takes ownership for their actions and works together to prevent the problem from happening again, the return on investment is measurable.

Leadership Workshops

Our Accountability Mirror™ leadership workshop is a one-day interactive program that teaches individuals, teams and leaders strategies, including how to avoid complaining, to immediately reach a higher level of performance.