When we work with businesses to help transform their results, one area of focus is personal accountability and responsibility. In fact, on the first day of the various workshops we lead, we discuss what it means to take 100 percent responsibility for the outcomes in your life. This means you would give up blaming others or complaining about external events.
My younger son provides plenty of examples of how silly blaming sounds, like when he gets frustrated with playing Mario Cart on Wii: “This controller isn’t working right!” Then, his brother will use that same controller to hit a great score. Blaming the controller implies your skill is perfect and there’s no personal improvement opportunity. Blaming is an easy way to avoid taking responsibility. It’s an awful practice whether at home or at work. Let’s simply agree to avoid blaming, OK?
Complaining is a bigger challenge, especially in organizations. When we experience something we don’t like, that is frustrating, or we know can be improved, we have a choice: we can complain about it or we can do something about it. Many times people find themselves willing to make noise but not to step up to full responsibility for making a change.
Complaining shows up everywhere — just look
Here’s an interesting example I recently observed. I was on a flight and upgraded to first class, seat 1C. This provided me a bird’s-eye view of the people getting on the plane and the preparation by the flight attendant. She was obliviously new because there was another agent showing her where everything was located and giving basic instruction and procedures.
After the door was closed the second flight attendant who had been helping in the rear of the plane came forward and the experienced attendant was clearly aggravated and didn’t hold back. She said out loud, “Now what is she doing? She’s not supposed to be checking anything in my cabin. I’ve already done that. She should make sure things up here are ready to go.” She carried on the entire time the other agent was in the back of the plane. I quietly watched and wanted to see what would happen next.
When the new attendant returned, the experienced attendant didn’t share any of her observations, provide feedback, or coach the newbie. Rather, she shared pleasantries as they finished their preparation. She was happy to complain to others, but not step up to help her partner become better at her job.
Manage the monkey (teach your team to be responsible)
Early in my career when I was a first line supervisor I received plenty of complaints from my team about procedures, company policy, management decisions and other workers. They were classic attempts to “put the monkey on my back.” I quickly learned that I didn’t want the monkey.
What I began doing was to engage the complainer and get them to take some reasonability to improving the situation. For example, if they complained about a co-worker I’d ask, “Have you talked to him about it?” (They did not.) “Go ahead and do that first and see if you can settle it.” Or, if they complained about a procedure, I’d ask if they would be willing to participate in a kaizen event to improve the process.
We made a rule that they would not come to me with a complaint unless they also had a suggestion and would be willing to act on it. If yes, I was totally willing to support their ideas. If no, they had to continue working the way things were, without complaining about it.
Turn the complaint into positive action
When we complain, we are spreading negativity. All organizations certainly have lots of things that can be improved, but the organizations with the best cultures find ways to tackle them positively. Here’s the good news — when people complain, it means they have a frame of reference for a better situation or alternative. The key is to tap into that perspective in a positive way.
If you create a culture that allows positive change, without the negative complaining, then you are way ahead of most other companies. This can even be a competitive advantage for you. One thing I know to be true is that if your culture is not one of accountability and responsibility, you are likely to be at a competitive disadvantage very quickly.
Here’s a challenge for you. See if you can go a full week without complaining to anyone. You can recognize when something isn’t optimum and take positive action, but complaining isn’t allowed. As an advanced challenge, engage your whole team in this game and see how many days you can go without a complaint and let us know how you do.