Re-Culturing “Complaints”

I captured my Thought of the Week in my blog this week, instead of in the Information/Updates.   

Thought of the Week:

Who am I as a Leader?  A focus on the Ontario Leadership Framework, School Level Leadership,2013


For a school and board leader, Setting Directions is a core domain in our work. As we all know from reading School Culture Rewired by Gruenert and Whitaker, this is strategic work that takes a significant amount of time, and involves Managing Emotions (a Personal Leadership Resource from the OLF).  As we Build A Shared Vision, the OLF outlines the need to “encourage the development of organizational norms that support openness to change in the direction  of the school’s vision”. As we Build Relationships and Develop People, the OLF reminds us of the need to “exemplify, through our actions, the school’s core values and its desired practices”. As we build this shared vision, it is essential that we maintain a strength-based, positive outlook, or we are doomed to fail.

CaptureOLF whole

During a recent school visit I witnessed a principal very carefully and positively outlining his expectations at his staff meeting – he called them “gripes” however what he was doing was clearly and honestly reinforcing his expectations through a positive approach…one that even involved a bit of humour while maintaining the urgency around what he was saying. Each day in our schools, as we measure the “climate”, we must ask ourselves if we have communicated our core values and our expectations around those core values, if we are modelling the core values that we aspire to see,  and how we are holding everyone accountable to these core values. Without this in place, the re-culturing process will take a significantly longer period of time that we are able to afford.

Of the many core values that we must see occur in our schools daily, the notion of maintaining a strength-based, positive outlook, is crucial.  We are working with young, impressionable minds who need to see us a pillars of hope who recognize their strengths no matter the circumstance!  Our students needs to know that we believe in them, regardless of the circumstance…that when things go awry, it is the behaviour that we are working to correct, that our feelings for the student have not changed.

One way to shift the climate of your school to become increasingly strength-based is extinguish complaints by turning them into conversations.  I was reading a blog this weekend that reflected the work of Will Bowen’s A Complaint Free World.

Capturecomplaint free

In his blog, William Parker summarizes Bowen’s tools for positively dealing with individuals who may have a GRIPE (which is an acronym for the strategy). He states, “Honest feedback provides you with information for making better decisions. Complaining simply discourages the attitudes or motivations others may have to take risks or achieve new goals. All of us are guilty of forgetting the difference between the two.”  (Parker, A Complaint Free World: 5 Ways to Respond Blog). I appreciated the tools that this book and blog provides as we increasingly develop our skill set in how to respond to complaints – so that we turn the complaint around, and do not enter into the “blame game” but into an honest conversation.  Remember, it is our role to lead our staff to understand how the work aligns with our school vision and our board vision.  Try out one of the following!

5 Reasons People Gripe and How You Can Respond

  1. Get attention.
    Everyone wants to be noticed even if it is for something negative. Unfortunately, if we use negative “attention grabbing” (by even complaining about the weather, work, family, or our health), we suck the life out of others.

Obviously, there is a difference between honest reflection and complaining. But complaining is when we express an idea for the purpose of selfish appeal or ego. So what if we get a handle on this bad habit ourselves, but others still drain us with their complaints?

Bowen suggests that when someone complains to get attention, ask them, “So what is going well with _____________?” For instance, if a team member is consistently complaining about his students, ask him, “So what is going well with your classes?” Redirect a person’s thoughts to thankfulness instead of misery, and then you can begin finding solutions.

  1. Remove responsibility.
    People also complain as way to try to get off the hook. Perhaps we believe our protests mean we will not have to perform to expectations. Let’s say, for instance, when someone is being corrected for being habitually late with deadlines, he may want to point out that others are missing their deadlines too. Or perhaps he’ll claim the solution is beyond his control.

Bowen suggests asking this question: “If it were possible, how might you do it?” Again this question removes the excuses and opens the door for solutions.

  1. Inspire Envy (or the Humble Brag)
    Sometimes people complain about others because they want to appear superior. For instance, if you’re in a meeting, and Mrs. T sees Mr. A coming in late, she may say, “Here comes Mr. A. Late again.” Her comment is less about his tardiness as it may be to draw attention to her own timeliness.

Bowen suggests this counter: compliment the opposite.

You could say to Mrs. T., “Yes, Mrs. T. It is great that you are always on time.” Although this may be perceived as slightly sarcastic, drawing attention to her need to inspire envy may be the quickest way to stop her complaining about others. Changing the subject is also a great way to ignore someone’s appeal for a “humble” brag.

  1. Power
    Sadly, people who are unhappy often find a sense of control in sharing their opinions through the means of complaining about others. Bowen’s counter? If someone comes to you because they want to complain or gossip about another person, you might say, “It sounds like the two of you have a lot to talk about.” If they persist, “Would you like me to arrange a meeting?” This response may either point them toward reconciliation or it may motivate them to find a way to move past the offense.
  1. Excuse Poor Performance
    Much like removing responsibility, complaining is the quickest way to divert a moment of honest confrontation or accountability. In team sports, athletes who are not easy to coach are usually weak teammates. Our educational teams are no different. We are often tempted to begin complaining about what we perceive as obstacles beyond our control.

But instead of complaining as a way to excuse poor performance, Bowen says to ask, “How do I plan to improve next time?” Again, excuses are exchanged for brainstorming solutions when you replace complaining with ideas for change.  (from A Complaint Free World: 5 Ways to Respond, by William Parker, Connected Leaders, February 13, 2016).

As you think about the re-culturing of the deficit mindset that may exist in your school, I wonder if this way of approaching the complaint may help to shift towards a learner mindset?  I wonder what the function of the “complaint” behaviour is?  Finally, I wonder how beginning every formal meeting with the Learner Mindset Chart might support this work as well?


Until Next Week…as per the OLF, are your school’s core values and associated expectations clear for everyone? 

“One percent of the work is stating the mission and 99 percent is living it.”  

4 responses

  1. From a system perspective managing and solving workplace negativity has long been a focus of my leadership. You have all heard me speak of the pronoun test as a diagnostic tool to determine the health of an organization. For those of you who haven’t the test is simple – what pronoun do our employees use when they refer to the “board”. Do they refer to the board as “they” or as “we”? “They” suggests at least some amount of disengagement, and perhaps even alienation. “We” suggests the opposite – that employee’s feel they’re part of something significant and meaningful. I continually ask myself, are we a “we” organization or a “they” organization? The difference matters. One of the priorities of our strategic plan is building relationships and a sense of trust. The thing is, a “we” organization can achieve that – but a “they” organization can’t.

    According to Gary Topchick, the author of Managing Workplace Negativity, the symptoms of a negative work environment are an increase in the number of complaints, high turnover, low quality of work, increased absences, loss of morale and motivation, lack of creativity and innovation, loss of loyalty to the organization. When negativity goes unchecked, the employee morale slips and productivity suffers. Since the employees are preoccupied with their personal agendas and set of complaints, the team spirit is adversely affected. Negativity needs to be tackled.

    “Nothing affects employee morale more insidiously than persistent workplace negativity. It saps the energy of your organization and diverts critical attention from work and performance. Negativity occurs in the attitude, outlook, and talk of one department member, or in a crescendo of voices responding to a workplace decision or event”.

    Within our own organization negativity often occurs when people are impacted by decisions and issues that are out of their control. Examples of these include but are certainly not limited too: initiative fatigue; staff cuts; budget reductions; grievances and senior administration decisions that adversely impact members of our staff. I can manage and solve workplace negativity within the board office and among our leadership team but where I am challenged is when negativity surfaces in our schools. Geography and time constraints prevent me from being in schools long enough to get a sense of the negative undertones. More often than not I am either not aware of the issue or I am not able to pin point the source of the negativity. Which is why I am so dependent upon principals and system leads to be not only the voice of “the board” but also the ear. Under these circumstances, in addition to what Nicole has listed above I need you to try some of the following ideas;

    • Identify any aspects of the situation that you can impact including providing feedback to senior administration about the negative impact that is occurring. Sometimes decisions are made and no one understands or predicts their outcome. If warranted you may need members of senior administration to meet with staff or parents.
    • Listen, listen, listen. Often people just need a sounding board. Be visible and available to staff. Proactively schedule group discussion sessions, town meetings, “lunches with the staff,” or one-on-one blocks of time. I like the practice at the start of the staff meeting that Nicole sites above.
    • Challenge pessimistic thinking and negative beliefs about people, the board, and our work. Don’t let negative, false statements go unchallenged. If the statements are true, provide the rationale, the board thinking, and the events that are responsible for the negative circumstances. Share everything you know about a situation to build trust with our employees.
    • Ask open-ended questions to determine the cause, and the scope of the negative feelings or reaction. Maybe it’s not as bad as people think; maybe their interpretation of events is faulty. Helping people identify exactly what they feel negatively about is the first step in solving the problem.

    Thank you Nicki for raising this important issue.


  2. I found your post really interesting – especially the reasons for and responses to griping. I agree that workplace negativity persists in some places and if not nipped in the bud, it can quickly spread. I’ve also come to understand that one negative person can often influence others around him or her making a workplace toxic.

    My biggest issue with those who gripe is when no viable alternative or solution is offered. I appreciate the response to “removing responsibility” because criticism for the sake of criticizing is, in my experience, the most common form of negativity.

    I also feel that negativity stems from a sense of “culture of me” versus a “culture of us” mentality. There are some people who are opportunistic – perhaps for the wrong reasons – and they seek to find opportunities that benefit their independent existence over that of the larger group.

    In my experience as a federation rep, I find that most times, people who carry negativity need an outlet. The outlet can be a simple ear. I often listen to people who just need to vent. My follow up question is often, “what would you like me to do about it?” The most common reply is nothing – the person just needed to communicate their frustration for the sake of communication. People also need a safe, trusted place to publicly share their comments when necessary, though, (whether it’s through an email, at a staff meeting, or some other avenue) and if this doesn’t exist, we all know little things can quickly snowball into big things.

    It is also fair to say that some negativity is the result of misinformation. For example, I know of colleagues who are negative as a result of not understanding policies and procedures. For example, a staff member may not be happy with the outcome of a student behaviour issue handled by the administrator without realizing certain protocols and expectations that are put into place. The frustration is that people in these situations often become upset and negative without seeking clarification or information that would open the door to meaningful, productive conversation.

    On that note, maybe we need to take a proactive approach to seeking feedback from our colleagues about what is and isn’t working. Many of us are unfamiliar with the challenges of different job categories so it can be easy to not understand the very issues leading to the negativity. An employee survey might provide some insight and engage staff.

    Finally, I vaguely remembered an article I read a few years ago about “the do’s and don’t of venting” and lo-and-behold, I found it. Venting can be healthy if one knows how to vent. This advice, by Dr. Leon Seltzer, is pretty good:

    “Closely related to [finding someone who can keep information confidential] is the more general dictum to choose a confidant(e) who’s safe to share yourself with. And that means someone who’s not only trustworthy but can be counted on to understand your perspective—as well as be supportive of, and sympathetic toward, your burdensome feelings. Additionally, you’re not seeking some know-it-all who can’t wait to interrupt you to glibly announce what you should do about the situation. Rather, what you’re looking for is a person who’s forbearing and can hear you out before even suggesting what might be helpful in resolving your problem—if, that is, it’s resolvable (since many such issues simply aren’t).”


    It’s refreshing to know that senior administration is aware of the ramifications of negativity in our workplaces. Let’s ensure our staff have the proper communication tools to turn negative feelings into constructive action.



  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response Steve and your level of engagement in this work. You have made so many valuable points in this response; especially the notion that upset often comes from misinformation. I could not agree with you more – miscommunication is something that I have encountered many times which is at the root of one of my current struggles…how do we get information to the “grass roots” of each school, so that the the transparency that we are working so hard to achieve is actually reaching all stakeholders? I feel as though our district works extremely hard at communication, however often the evidence presents itself that our communication efforts are not having the depth of impact that we desire/know are essential. What structures do we need to put into place to ensure that our transparency is actually reaching those who it needs to reach? What do we need to do differently? How do we motivate some of our stakeholders to engage in the communication tools that we have put into place? Big questions…takes me back to my previous post where I discussed “I taught it but they didn’t learn it”…and the balance of responsibility, motivation and engagement. Thanks for the article as well…I will be sure to read it and to follow up with you. I truly appreciate your perspective! N


  4. Thanks so much for your sharing and thoughts on Re-culturing Complaints, and for opening the discussion with the comments that were shared after. I have been working hard at establishing a positive culture of learning at school and within our Board, but sometimes it gets frustrating when people still seem to be stuck in the negative. I loved the information on reasons why people GRIPE and how we can turn that around. I want to do some more thinking on this idea, and look at bringing some of tthis information to our next staff meeting to open up the discussion and hopefully help those that feel stuck or misunderstood to see how we can all work together to build a strong culture. I appreciated Steve’ s sharing of the article on venting – thanks all for sharing!


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