High Level Complaining

Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd and The Innovation Paradox writes the following about how to evaluate complaints and whining within an organization:

“The paradox is that improvement in human affairs leads not to satisfaction but to discontent, albeit a higher-order discontent than might have existed before. This is what historians have labeled the theory of rising expectations. It fuels the fires of revolution and change because it creates a discrepancy between what people have and what they now see is possible to have. That discrepancy is the source of discontent and the engine for change.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow had an interesting way of describing this phenomenon as it applied to the health of organizations. He advised managers to listen not for the presence or absence of complaints, but rather to what people were complaining about—that is, the quality or level of the complaint. He called them “grumbles.” In the least healthy organizations, Maslow said, you can expect to hear low-order grumbles – complaints about working conditions, about what he called “deficiency needs.” For example: “It’s too hot in here.” Or, “I don’t get paid enough.”

In a healthier organization, Maslow said, there would be high-order grumbles – complaints that extend beyond the self to more altruistic concerns for self or society.

There is the absurdity. Only in an organization where people are in on things and where their talents are being utilized would it occur to someone to complain about those higher-order issues. What this means to the manager is that improvement does not bring contentment but its opposite.

Absurd as it seems, the way to judge your effectiveness is to assess the quality of the discontent you engender, the ability to produce movement from low-order discontent to high-order discontent. Easing the dress codes raises expectations for further change, and they now want more informal days, looser codes, clearer policies. Pity the poor manager who can’t imagine how a well-intended action led to such grousing. The paradox of rising expectations helps us better understand why it is on the best campuses that there is the most restlessness and demand for change.”

4 Responses to “High Level Complaining”

  1. Tom Middleton Says:

    It seems that the best managers/leaders are the ones who create climates to receive such critique objectively, without taking things too personally, then empower the complainer/critic to take action to resolve the concern.

    You have done a good job of that to my mind. Others may disagree. However, when I think about the caliber of those in our organization, especially those who have transferred from business backgrounds, I believe my statement is proved correct. Good people get on buses they feel they can help steer.

    What about gratitude? Do the higher level orgs engender more gratitude as well as critique?

    Is there a way of training leaders to effectively receive and managae critique , who aren’t necessarily thick skinned the way you are?

  2. Sam Says:

    Tom – your observations and questions are good.

    Years ago, I had a mentor I admired who said “If you want to survive, keep a soft heart and a thick skin and NOT the other way around.”

    However it is hard not to be hurt by followers – what Clinton calls “leadership backlash” – particularly if they are ones you have trusted, opened your life to and with whom you have been vulnerable. Such folks know how to stick it to you. That’s probably why conflict in marriages is so wounding.

    Regarding gratitude, I’m not sure. I would like to hope that the more people operate in any org at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, the more gracious and full of gratitude they would become. Unfortunately, I don’t see it in practice. I think our nature has warped us at every level. Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is selfishness and a sense of entitlement.

    I haven’t given much deliberate thought to how to train others who aspire to lead how to receive and manage critique. Off the top of my head, several things come to mind:

    1. Playing “catch” for poor followers, toxic people, and criticism (valid or not) needs to be modeled. I’d like to be a leader that is open enough so that those who are close can see the reality …and the struggle …of dealing with criticism.

    2. I don’t think we bury our heads in the sand and say that criticism doesn’t hurt. It does. particularly when it’s crafted to wound by people who know us well and know the buttons to push.

    3. In every criticism, there is learning to be had. No matter how inaccurate, a bad critique has value.

    4. When I go to bed at night, I have to ask if I have done what is right in my responses. As best as it lies with me, have I done what is needful to make things right?

    5. At the same time, the reality is that some conflicts have no resolution. Some criticism will not be resolved.

    6. In the end, I have to weigh any critique against God’s value of me. While I can’t use the “God card” to write off criticism, I also realize that my view of myself, my confidence, my self-esteem, and my own need for affirmation and validation come only from God. If I depend upon the applause of people for my strokes, I will die bitter, disillusioned and disappointed.

    There is a telling scene at the end of the 2007 movie, The Queen, where Tony Blair is sitting opposite Queen Elizabeth and she tells him that he can be assured, he will someday get his share of criticism from the media. His day will come, as hers had during the Diana ordeal, when he is the objective of unwithering critique. It is a poignant reminder that criticism comes with the turf for anyone who leads.

  3. Charlie J Says:


    It seems to me that there is an enormous difference between “critique” and “complain/whine”, would you agree?

    I could be wrong, but a complaint/whine seems to have a tad more of an intrinsic selfish vibe around it. Even ‘tone’ can be a huge ingredient to this. Whereas a critique may be less personal in nature if words are spoken with grace and humble concern regarding a perspective.

  4. Sam Says:

    Yeah, good distinction, Charlie.

    I think I got onto a rabbit trail in my response to Tom because he was particularly focusing on the criticism issue. But constructive critique is certainly different from non-productive criticism. Thanks for pointing out the distinction.

    Great to see you …hope the adoption thing continues to unwind well for you guys!!

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