Can Complainers Become Leaders
Are complainers potential leaders? Listen closely to their complaints; learn from their techniques. Seeing problems is the beginning of leadership; circling problems ends leadership.
Some see problems and complain;
leaders see problems and seek solutions.
The first time I met a political complainer I was twenty-five and leading a growing nonprofit.
She came representing the complaints of others.
In reality she wanted her own way. She overstated problems and ignored success. It didn’t matter that a dying organization had found new life.
Every organizational growth cycle produces political complainers who come representing others. Their power to gather followers is in compassion, real or fake.
Their power of influence is making
people feel they care and suggesting you don’t.
My experience indicates political complainers can devastate organizations. They pursue restoration of the past in the false hope that going back solves growth pains.
Growth causes pain. Compassionate people complain about change because change hurts.
Leadership ends when preventing discomfort becomes the ultimate goal.
Never let those who don’t like
what’s working change it.
Pit bull Complainers:
Unlike political complainers who represent others, pit bull complainers never let it go. Round and round you’ll go discussing the same issues over and over. Tenacity is their gift.
Questions to ask about complainers:
- Can they go beyond pointing out problems?
- Can compassion and tenacity be refocused?
- Are they willing to create and execute solutions to the problems they see?
- Are they willing to do what’s best for the organization?
- Do they align with organizational values?
- Is forward-facing possible?
- Can they become loyal?
- Can they find ways to talk about the future without complaining about the past?
- Can they transition from pressuring you to achieving on their own?
Forward-facing solutions create momentum. Backward-facing complaints de-motivate.
Have you seen complainers become leaders?
How can complainers become leaders?
You can be viewed as a complainer even though all you’re looking to do is create positive change.
For example, I’ve had the opportunity to serve non profit organizations as a volunteer whether it be as a board member, committee member, etc. There have been instances where I challenge the status quo because I know it’s best for the growth of the cause.
In a few cases I’ve sensed they don’t care for what I’m saying or even wished I’d kept it to myself. Why? It will create more work for everyone.
I usually point out the elephant in the room. Sometimes, people want to cover him with a huge sheet. Does that make me a complainer?
Thank you Steve.
Great comment. I’m hopeful this post gets leaders of nonprofits thinking about the potential of a “complainer”… perhaps the title of this post could be.. “complainers ARE leaders” 🙂
As long the elephant is dealt with and everyone ‘jumps in’ and cleans up the elephant’s mess…
Elephant mess… 🙂
We should always be content personally, yet dissatisfied with the status quo so as not to become complacent.
Complacency is often the result of laziness, disinterest, or pride. Desire for improvement comes from humility and passion for the organization’s interest. Desire for improvement should lead to action, not complaining.
Complaining is blaming – seeing the problem as belonging to someone else. It results in little constructive action, and is very disruptive. It is often the symptom of lack of contentment with oneself, directed towards others, of pride that can provide excellent Monday morning quarterbacking while not becoming part of the solution.
There is an old (and somewhat brutal, though true) saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. Complainers don’t lead, they won’t follow, and they are often very much in the way.
Organizations need people who speak out, who are willing to challenge the status quo, and who are willing to take action – for the good of the organization, They do not need, nor should they tolerate, political complainers.
Thank you Marc.
Love your contribution. In particular the tension between contentment and complacency.
“Complaining is blaming”… if a complainer is to become a leader they must start owning.
I’ll add here… when complaints are the collision of values you have deeper problems than complaints… added just for fun.
Their power of influence is making
people feel they care and suggesting you don’t.
I had never thought of this dynamic – I have seen this played out in so many places I have worked and have wondered how the complainer had gained so much traction – this rings true! If so, the complainer absolutely is a leader and needs their energies harnessed in finding a solution, owning that solution, and bringing that solution to those they represent. This is a helpful way to frame this behavior – thanks!
Thank you Katie.
It’s always useful when contributors share their impressions and applications.
One thing to learn from political complainers is caring matters. Care as much about the people as you do about the vision. 🙂
Love the term pit bull complainer. We’ve all known one of those.
I worked with a guy in my last job that I really liked. I had much respect for him as a person. But he was a pit bull complainer and I saw lots of people avoid him. I liked him so sometmes I’d try to joke him out of it…I’d make a joke about something else to try and change the topic when I saw others growing annoyed. But like a pit bull he’d just latch on to the topic with more bite.
I wasn’t his supervisor. I never figured out how to tell him in a friendly positive way that he was hurting himself. I had the feeling he didn’t care.
But it was sad because his talents and character were undervalued because of this trait.
Thank you Dauna.
I’m glad you consistently contribute to the conversation. This illustration feels like a healthy warning to all of us who constantly see things that need fixing.
Not only is it hard for others…we hurt ourselves too.
Great article…. my philosophy has always been that if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Complainers can see and point out flaws in the system and should be encouraged to help remediate those problems. I do work some people that complain for the sake of complaining, but once in a while a valid complaint is made and when a solution to the problem is put in place, everyone benefits.
This one hit home for me as a manager of community associations (HOAs, condos, co-ops) for the past 25 years (gasp!). Thanks so much for the post – you have some outstanding clarifiers in there that I will share with my leadership workshop participants in the future.
This reminded me of two concepts. The first is an old Zig Ziglar – “Never let anyone come to you with a problem without offering at least two potential solutions.” Initially I wondered why he required two solutions, until I started actually employing the process. In my world, I have found complainers may be persons who seek change but lack certain key knowledge, or access, or something else that is in their way of working towards a solutions. However, they might be persons who simply want to have others play a part in their pscho-drama. Two completely different end games. Almost anybody can come up with one solution, but if you can push to get a second one, you will frequently find out which kind of person the complainer is. If the former, you can continue to ask questions, which begins to build common ground and facilitate adjusting the complainer’s mindset from problem to solution mode. Those are your leaders. If the latter, once you make it plain you are not going to play the game and are focused on the higher principle of finding solutions. After a while they tend to look for someone else who will play. These are clearly not your leaders – at least not now. As Dr. Ruth used to say, they need a ther-a-peeest (imagine a heavy German accent there).
The other concept was passion. Passion is a marvelous thing, but it’s blind as a bat and can be completely misguided. Complainers have passion. Excellent leaders have passion. If we put the complainer in a position to shift mindset from problem-based to solution-based, we may just find we have a leader there.
I believe employees complain only when they think a change is required for the benefit of the organisation; otherwise they would move on. Unfortunately, many organisation don’t want to entertain such thoughts. To differentiate between a genuine complaint & a crib, seek suggestion for improvement from the same person. Even better if that person can be made part of the solution seeking process. Then there will better commitment & a chance to change things for better (Leadership trait).
An interesting article. And great comments. I learnt from each comment.
Complaint is not good or bad. i feel the intention of making it decides it this way or the other. If my complaint has a purpose of resolving an issue, or I bring up a point to correct what is wrong in an organisation or system, its perfectly fine to complain. but if one is complaining for the sake of complaining with no focus on any solution then it serves no purpose. In that case a complainant can never be a leader.
I also feel that barring exceptions, a person who keeps complaining cannot be a leader – I dont know whether the statement is too judgemental or not
Can complainers become leaders? If they can honestly answer ‘yes’ to your 9 questions, seems likely…if they are driven by an internal compass and do not wait and watch. Have I seen it, not as much, because that inner drive may not be true.
How to do it? Prompts, build on those tenacious strengths, insightful observation skills, energy, desire for something better–reflect on how those strengths can also be seen as weaknesses and observe responses.
Recognition with directed questions might start the process…’thank you for bringing this improvement opportunity to mind, what options do you see and what can I do to help you with your role in solving it?’
Again, there could be that more global advance prep piece in a large meeting…presenting that, while we know things may be decent or even going well (contentment), that there also may be options to improve (action to avoid complacency) and get better and that it is an expectation that we constantly identify what we can improve on. Complaining sans solutions is not an acceptable (not tolerated) continuous learning/improvement process (part of what the organization stands for). Thought I would add some past LF gravy to the mix!
DocDisc, thank you for your contribution, I appreciate your comment suggesting the response “’thank you for bringing this improvement opportunity to mind, what options do you see and what can I do to help you with your role in solving it?’
Customers and employees who complain are the first point in recognising that something could be better. If we were all always happy with the status quo, we would never change or grow.
The important part is what follows, asking them for options, or providing the information to explain why change may not be possible at that moment. I have often found that complaints are a result of someone not having all the information, and their complaint opens up an opportunity to listen to them, to seek first to understand, and then win-win as Stephen Covey always advised.
In my experience, I have also found that if one person is complaining about something, they are not the only one, they are just the one who voices it. Just because others don’t say something, doesn’t necessarily mean they are happy with the status quo.
So, listening to the complaint, and asking for a solution, provides the opportunity not only to solve the problem, but also to spread the word to others what is being done to solve it.
Thank you for your contribution Tom. The Zig Ziglar approach you describe is the nugget of wisdom I have been looking for. I will do my best to implement that.
That’s great!! Zig has shared some terrific nuggets through the years. If it works for you (which I suspect it will), pass it forward!
Thanks for an enlightening post, Dan! I guess we need to focus on “constructive criticism” to avoid getting stuck complaining about something, but not stepping forward to suggest a solution.
Asking the person who is complaining how they can solve it can be a step towards empowering that person to realise that they can make a change, no matter how small. They may not realise that they can make a difference.I don’t recall who said it, but one of my favourite quotes is “Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness” which reminds us to focus on the solution, not the problem.
People have been talking about this Diamonds or “Sunshine Stuff” forever, it seems. And some things impact some people. There are a lot of “evangelicals” of all types talking about this in churches and synagogs and army bases and olympic teams and the like.
I did some NLP stuff a long time ago that was pretty useful.
And I saw this today:
which is about “training your brain to see sunshine instead of rain.”
Then there are drugs to make you smile…
Me, I use cartoons to throw a framework around things that don’t work and things that might work better. I do tend to see a lot of things as Square Wheels, meaning that they need some form of improvement. But there are also Round Wheels out there somewhere…
I also use a metaphor of Spectator Sheep, who stand around munching grass and not contributing much and who are continually voicing their opinions about things: Naaaaaaaaaa. Baaaaaaaaa.
The key seems to be how we react and what actions we take to make things better. The rest is just about how we are thinking about things, I think.
Thank you for this post, it was very enlightening. I am a teacher and this, plus others, are helping me to understand some of the behaviour of those I work with.
I do have an inquiry for you. Based behaviour, I think some would call me a Political Complainer. I usually bring up concerns because others come to me and I feel passionate about them as well. I am however not against the idea of change and usually try to find solutions that will bring understanding between leadership and those they are trying to lead. I don’t mind conflict, but do not like misunderstandings and that is where I find most leadership/led problems originate. When I approach leadership about these issues, they will become immediately defensive and not wish to address the concerns. I am not accusatory and do not “blame” individuals. My tendency is to look at situational factors and try to resolve them. I know it is human nature to feel hurt when challenged and that walls will come up, but I want to help and this tendency stops progress from happening.
Do you have a method, technique, or guidance about my heart motivation that could help me be more effective? Maybe a past blog? I am a newer reader of your blog and I find it very elucidating. I hold your views in high regard and I think you might have an idea to point me forward. Thank you.
Been called a pit bull. God uses it for good. Church planters need to be tenacious agents of change. We’re enduring to be faithful and true to the call to build the dream against all odds.
My observation about complainers is that they are usually masking the fact that they are under skilled for the task of leadership to which they aspire.
Dan-I’m writing a book called Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers (due out Jan). We did a survey and results of more than 600 people said that 68% of them were dealing with co-workers and team members, the 2nd highest selection was people who reported to them 29% (participants could choose up to 3 areas). Your questions to consider about complainers about are right on the money. What surprised me was how many people wrote in the comment section that they had turned themselves around to being contributors. On most occasions, these “recovering complainers” had worked with another complainer and saw themselves in that complainer’s behavior or a leader or co-worker had a frank conversation with them about their behavior. A couple of folks said they decided to end the complaining as a department. Thanks…the political complainer and the pit bull are great descriptions!
People avoid complainers and great leaders establish and encourage positive relationships within the team. Complainers are reporters not problem solvers and are I have seldom equipped for leadership in my opinoin.