Life is filled with opportunities to complain and criticize. We witness it in both organized forms, such as documentaries and protests, and organic forms like customers complaining about poor service, employees criticizing their company’s policies, and bosses criticizing their team’s performance. Regardless of the form it takes, the results an individual gains from engaging in it are proportionate to the level of investment a person makes in the issue.
1) Avoidance. Many people refrain from complaint altogether because they fear the conflict that might result. (The Japanese are not alone in the high value they place on harmony.) Still others refrain because they believe “shikata ga nai” (there is nothing that can be done about it). Buying into this belief is dangerous. Whether it leads to a complete refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem (e.g. the oil company who refuses to acknowledge the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming), silently stewing about something (e.g. the employee who keeps a silent laundry list of all the ways their boss takes advantage of them), or just going numb (e.g. the woman in an unhappy marriage), avoiding the problem altogether ensures that it will persist – and often get worse.
2) Complacent Complaining. At this level, the person attempts to speak about the problem, but their communication is rendered impotent because it is directed at people who have no power to impact change (e.g. the husband who complains to his wife about his incompetent employee). Why does this happen? Most people have a natural aversion to conflict so they prefer to let off their frustrations about an issue where their internal frustration won’t risk creating an external conflict. Even if they do complain to a person who has the power to do something about it, complaints are often so muted and indirect that the message is missed altogether.
The majority of complaint and criticism happens this way – behind people’s backs – and is incredibly dangerous. A dissatisfied customer will go on to tell 10 or more people about their bad experience – without telling the business about it and giving them the opportunity to correct the issue. This silently dissatisfied customer does far more to turn away customers than all of the marketing dollars in the world will do to attract them. Smart businesses (and smart people) understand the natural human tendency to complain to “safe” outsiders and find ways to ask for feedback on a regular basis in a way that demonstrates they really want to hear it.
3) Critical Attack. Active criticism and protest represent more of an investment in creating change but frequently miss the boat because they focus on outlined the problem in excruciating detail without making any attempt to propose solutions. Several documentaries I watched lately did this and I found myself frustrated at the injustice of the situation being described and ready to take action, but with no clear idea of what to do. The other challenge with this type of complaint is that it can be polarized and aggressive, almost guaranteeing defensiveness in the recipient and decreasing the likelihood for creating win/win solutions.
4) Submit a solution. The only type of complaint that represents a real investment in change and has any hope of affecting it is one that comes with at least some attempt to contribute to a solution. Complaining takes little effort. Coming up with viable solutions takes commitment, creativity and the courage to stick your neck out and possibly get criticized yourself. The next time you have a beef, I encourage you to take Michelangelo’s advice and “criticize by creating”. If we really want to make a difference we need to stop allowing ourselves the luxury of criticism without the responsibility for creating solutions.