I was at a conference earlier this month and overheard an up-and-coming engineer complaining about his recent transfer to a new boss to a few company friends. He probably had good reason to feel frustrated: A recent department re-org had him now reporting to a former peer, and by his account that former peer wasn’t qualified to be his superior.
But in complaining, he was making 2 mistakes simultaneously. First, he was in a public forum, not knowing who was within earshot who might know (and then report back to) his boss. Second, his audience was a cohort of friends from his current company.
I’ve seen very smart rising leaders tank because they had a hard time keeping their opinions about how wrong things are in their company to themselves. I’m not referring to situations of harassment or bullying, or other issues of ethics and legality that need to be reported through the proper channels.
I’m talking about complaining about things like what’s wrong with your new boss, how many of the people running your group or organization don’t know what they’re doing, how the organization’s mission, or vision, or expansion plans are, in your opinion, completely off track. And in these cases, I’m not saying that you should never talk about your frustrations. You can. But choose your target audience wisely.
Avoid These 2 Mistakes
1. Complaining in a public area. In the opening example, the engineer was at a conference and not his office, so he might have assumed that the people around his immediate group didn’t have a clue about who he was or who his boss was. Wrong. I did. And he had no idea who I was. But he named his boss. And, he was wearing a name tag with his company’s name on it, so it was easy for anyone nearby to put two and two together and figure out who his target likely was.
I’m not about to tell anyone what I heard. But I’m the exception, not the rule. When complaining in a public area like this, you can end up vulnerable without realizing it. Other public forums include the local Starbucks or lunch venue where you could be overheard by others who might know you, your company, or your boss.
2. Complaining to work friends. We think what we say will be kept under the radar when we’re talking with our friends at work. Sure, it might. But there are always the one or two people in the crowd who might casually say to another work mate that so-and-so is unhappy with his boss and his new situation. Then it gets passed on to others. You cannot control who it gets passed onto, including to your new boss or someone else who can affect your future. And when it does get repeated, the tone and content of what you had originally said might be exaggerated. Most of those repeating your sentiments might not mean you ill will, but there are some who may, and you don’t want to give them any fuel.
What to Do Instead
1. Vent Your Frustrations with Friends Who Don’t Work at Your Company. What seems innocent enough – voicing your frustration in public and/or to friends at work – can be a one-way ticket to nowhere as you look to rise up within your organization. Keep your complaints out of the work environment and save the talk for those friends who are outside of your organization.
2. Better yet, instead of complaining, look for ways to make a tough situation manageable. Again, when I say a “tough” situation, I’m not talking about tolerating harassment, bullying, or legally or ethically questionable activity. Suddenly finding yourself reporting to a former peer is a tough situation for many people, and it happens a lot in company re-orgs.
Instead of complaining, look for ways to make the situation work. Ask yourself this: Do I want to be right, or do I want to show up as a leader? When complaining, we get to “be right.” Of course it may be a difficult situation that you find yourself in at work, and of course you can feel “right” when commenting at work to others about that. But does being right matter as much as your future and how you want to be viewed as a leader?
True leaders don’t complain. They either work to right the situation or they move on. What are your long-term desires and what role does complaining play in that?
If you have put your energy into making a tough situation work, and after doing so, the condition doesn’t improve or it becomes untenable, assess your options, then decide what the next best career move is for you.
In the meantime, don’t politically shoot yourself in the foot by complaining. Because in doing so, you could be hurting your chance at your next leader role.
Question: What do you think? Do you have any tips to share? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com/Dirk Ercken