Are You the Leader Who Complains Too Much?

While occasional venting is healthy at work, excessive complaining can be poisonous.

By Terry Joseph Busch Apr 1, 2014
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April 2014 CoverLife is complicated: At times we must do things we don’t want to do, work with people we don’t like and deal with unexpected challenges. Because we are human, we sometimes relieve our frustration by complaining.

Go ahead and vent, if you must. It can be good for the soul and a healthy way to discharge negative emotion. But there is a point of diminishing returns, and excessive complaining can hurt you.

Complaining Up the Chain

When you accept a management position, the expectation is that you can, without much hand-holding, resolve conflicts, solve problems and implement decisions even in the face of strong disagreement and resistance.

Sure, your bosses know that managing is hard at times; they have all been there. But you were selected for this responsibility because your superiors had faith in your ability to rise to the occasion. Excessive complaining about the difficulties of your job could undermine that faith.

Instead of constantly complaining to your boss, discuss your challenges as well as your plan, objective and proposed action to overcome them. Minimize any “woe is me” attitude that generates doubt in your ability to handle problems and cope with the pressure.

Complaining Down the Chain

It’s tempting to vent to your subordinates. You have access to them daily, and, since you’re the boss, they are a captive audience. However, just as your superiors hope to maintain their faith in your ability to manage, your subordinates want to be assured of your ability to lead them. Excessive complaining chips away at their confidence in you and in the organization.

Subordinates believe you have access to more information on which to base your complaints. Even if you do, being captain of the ship means you must maintain your calm even in the most violent storm. Although you may be in inner turmoil, your exterior must convey a sense of control. Your subordinates have their own challenges to meet and expect you to rise to yours.

Complaining Across the Chain

Complaining to someone who is on your level and facing similar challenges is an easy trap to fall into. While connecting with your colleague about shared frustrations, you may think you don’t have to worry about how it affects your raise or employee productivity.

Not so fast. If a fellow team leader believes you are drowning under too much work or are heading up an inept team, you won’t be approached for cross-functional projects that could advance your career. Your team may also be overlooked for a new business deal. If your peers don’t trust that you will deliver, they won’t risk working with you.

Five Signs You Are an Excessive Complainer

How do you know if you have become “that leader” who complains too much? Take note of how people react to your presence or phone calls and answer the following questions:

  1. When a colleague sees you at their door or cubicle, do they take a deep breath as if to say, “What now?”
  2. Are they slow to return your calls or e-mails?
  3. Do they listen for a few polite minutes and then have to go to an appointment or take another call? 
  4. Do they vent to you, or are you always the venter and never the ventee?
  5. Do you reject all constructive suggestions for solving the issue you are complaining about? Are you complaining about the same thing now that you did six months ago?

If you answered yes to these questions, you are likely complaining too much. Managing is hard, but you don’t need to let everyone know it, all the time.


Terry Joseph Busch is president and CEO at Busch & Associates LLC, a management consulting firm in Portland, Ore.
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