When Water Cooler Chat goes Wrong

Complaining is not the same as being productive

One message I have always been careful to deliver to my employees is that complaining about work is not the same as being productive at work. One might find, with a group of like-minded colleagues, a willing audience to discuss things that could be improved. We have all worked someplace where we have encountered bureaucratic headaches, difficult team-members, unfulfilling career paths, and perceived lack of executive vision. Talking about these things can feel encouraging and allow one to walk away feeling like something has gotten done. But it is important to remember that in truth, nothing has been done. The discussion may feel good, but it is not the same as implementing a solution, increasing revenue, or decreasing costs. 

Worse yet, when employees feel that this behavior is productive, they tend to do it more and encourage it in others. This increases the amount of complaining, decreases the amount of work accomplished, and results in a downward spiral of productivity and ultimately morale.

 It is a manager’s job to prevent this from happening. The first thing one can do is promote an open-door policy. That is to say that the door is always open to criticism, ideas for improvement, and career concerns. Transparency is always a positive thing, and very often ideas are spot on and come with justifications that can help raise them up the flagpole. Secondly, it is important to remind employees that complaining about things to other employees before they have been elevated to those who can act upon them is not only unproductive, but it is unacceptable. This may sound harsh, but it is not. Every company has the responsibility to control its own culture. Organizations have the same right to forbid employer-focused complaining as they do to prevent sexually harassing speech.

But that authority does not have to lead to an authoritarian relationship. When employees know that the things that bug them, the things they want to improve, and their ideas for a better workplace are landing on the welcome ears of an interested manager, the need to complain at the water cooler will be naturally mitigated. 

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