Complain Your Way to Better Employee Engagement

Everyone complains. If they say they aren’t, they are probably lying.

Most people handle complaining in one of two ways: they join in the complaining or they say, “Stop complaining. It could be worse.”

Businesses run the risk of hurting productivity and employee engagement by ignoring complaints or actively discouraging complaining. While most forms of complaining can be damaging, there is one type of complaining that businesses should not only accept, but also encourage, because it leads to better employee engagement.

Complaining at its worst

Extensive research has shown that complaining is bad for us. It worsens our mood, our brain functioning, our listeners’ moods, and even our physical health.

We all do it anyway because we like to vent. We like to think that sharing all our complaints with someone who will listen will make us feel better. The saying Misery loves company relates to the idea that complaining can bring people closer together.

This is only partly true. Complaining can actually hurt us more than it helps us if done incorrectly. It activates our brains for negative thinking and brings everyone in the conversation into an even more miserable state, something we touched upon in our neuroscience for business series. It can even increase the amount of cortisol in our bodies, leading to health problems over time.

But research does say, that even in that miserable state, people do feel closer together. In psychology research, the term for this is co-rumination. The act of joining with others to vent often leaves people worse off in terms of life outlook, but it increases the bond they feel with each other. Most people have probably formed at least one strong relationship with someone else through the act of venting.

When we think about business, all this complaining would just lead to miserable employees that have close relationships with each other. This would not make for a very engaged or productive workplace.

Recent research using survey data from over 400 working adults, found connections between co-rumination, stress, and burnout. They concluded that co-rumination actually undermines the benefits of social support and creates higher amounts of stress, negativity, and burnout.

But there is a way to complain in a manner that strengthens relationships and improves employee engagement.

Reflection, not brooding

One of the ways to turn complaining into a positive experience is to turn it into co-reflection.

Researcher, Bastian, breaks down co-rumination into two types: co-brooding and co-reflection.

Co-brooding involves passively complaining about how bad things are, feeling disappointed, and wishing things were different. It often leads to a more negative view of the future.

Co-reflection takes the initial complaint and actively seeks to understand it and create solutions for it in the present and in the future.

Co-brooding takes an initial complaint and brings people together through a bigger set of negative thoughts, while co-reflection takes the initial complaint and brings people together through a solution focused, forward thinking approach.

Bastian found that while co-brooding lead to an increase in depressive symptoms over time, co-reflection actually decreased them.

So maybe complaining isn’t all bad when done right. As Bastian states:

“This study is the first that shows that it’s not co-ruminating as a whole that’s maladaptive. If you are focusing on the feelings of how bad you feel and the potential consequences in a passive way, then it’s very bad. But if people are more focused on trying to grasp what’s happened to gain insight then it might actually be a very good thing.”

To add further insight into the subtleties of complaining behavior, Bastian found that co-reflection created stronger relationships, while co-brooding lead to more conflict in relationships.

Complaining at work

What this means is that leaders can actually improve productivity, satisfaction, engagement, and relationships by helping employees channel rumination into reflection and to help them avoid brooding.

In the 2016 Cone Communications Employee Engagement Survey, researchers found that 93% of employees want to feel like the company they work for cares about them. 78% want to play an active role in helping the company by providing feedback, ideas, and solutions.

Creating opportunities for co-reflection does just that.

What leaders can do

Reflection time – Reflection is a crucial aspect of avoiding brooding. Employees should be given time to reflect on their own work as well as reflect on the work of the team and the company in a group setting. This will allow people to find solutions for problems. They can bring complaints to a place that offers a positive outlook.

Open door policy – Leaders and managers should create an open door policy where employees can come to them with problems. This keeps complaining from taking hold of the employees and creating low morale. The manager should listen to the employee and create opportunities for problem solving, not just venting.

Encouraging feedback – Leaders should put into place systems of feedback, whether that includes an employee suggestion program, a forum, or weekly meeting. Leaders should make sure that employees know that there will be no retribution for bringing feedback or complaints to the appropriate people.

MindfulnessBastian says that mindfulness can allow people to focus on the present. Employees will be better able to focus on the issue at hand and their thoughts and emotions about it. Focusing on the present can help people think of solutions without worry of the future or annoyance about the past.

Supporting self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Employers can give employees opportunities and training about self-awareness and emotional intelligence. This will enable them to be more aware of their own thoughts, how they can express those thoughts, and how the expressions of those thoughts impact others. This type of awareness can turn complaining into a much more positive experience.

There are many things leaders can do to create a culture of reflection and not rumination. Even though complaining can bring the morale of the employees down, if leaders acknowledge that it is happening, they can harness its potential use for engagement and productivity.

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