Complaining for Control

May 11, 2007

I have an incredible set of students this term – not one has complained about anything, its remarkable. Especially given the fact that the course is untried, untested, and certainly not smooth sailing. Most faculty can safely say that this is a rare event. By standards of academe, this is an even rarer event – we academics complain more than most!

This leads one to think about why people complain at all. This class has certainly not done so, and I do not see them any worse for it. But maybe we need to stop and define “complaint”: A complaint is an explicit expression of dissatisfaction, justified or not, with or without the hope of some benefit. Granted, many times complaints are justified, but I wonder if they are always the best means to an end. My students chose to participate in improving the course and counteracted deficiencies by means of constructive suggestions, rather than complaints.

It looks like in all situations, when things need improvement, we stand at this fork in the road: to complain or not to complain, to seek constructive thought or not, these are the choices. People opt for complaint when they feel they have no control over the situation, and of course, the act of complaining offers a vestige of control, or the illusion of it. People who are in control or comfortable with their situation, no matter how hopeless, feel no need to complain, and try to find some channel for improvement. Actively seeking control only serves to relinquish it; letting go in fact leaves one more in control. Just the zen of it I guess.

It is precisely for this reason that organizations provide complaint boxes, or in our case, teacher feedback forms. By providing the illusion of control, organizations in fact retain it. A grieved person feels in control when stuffing an inert box (vigorously no doubt), or blackening circles on a scantron form. What if these outlets did not exist? Feedback would have to be more personal, direct, and I believe, more constructive. We need fewer outlet valves, and more channels of straightforward communication.

People complain when out of control because it psychologically places the blame for missing equanimity elsewhere (this is not to say that the fault is theirs). It is a perfectly natural defense mechanism, but certainly not a source of solutions (which constructive criticism potentially is). In hard courses, students complain about teachers. Faculty complain about Deans. Faculty complain about students. Faculty complain about information technology, about editors and referees. Its just awful – faculty complain a lot – we have too much time for this. Instead we just need to do our best, enjoy what we do, and stop complaining about what others do and don’t do.

Okay, so maybe you don’t complain much yourself, but are surrounded by people who do. What is the solution? Complain about them? No. Ignore them? No. Then what? I don’t think I know a good answer, but here are some ideas to stem the complaint scourge.

First, try not to complain yourself. Try to remember that for every complaint, there is a constructive idea out there as well. If there is one thing I learnt from my recent class, this lesson is it. Just because others complain does not mean you have to.

Second, try to remember that complaints feed on themselves. Never respond to a complaint with another one. Escalating complaining is a groupthink recipe for a total loss of control. So, ignoring complaints may be good after all, but then it may lead to a repeat complaint, more vigorous and more out of control. Responding constructively ignores the complaint in a positive manner. Redirection of the complainant’s energy into a solution trumps simply absorbing or deflecting it. Even in cases of blatant complaining, it is not that hard to see the little constructive element in it. Treat every complaint as a useful suggestion.

Third, pre-empt complaints by conscribing the environment to minimize their occurrence. This does not mean creating the perfect environment in which there is no cause for complaint, that is simply a pipe dream. But suggesting that complaints are not welcome is a good starting point. Make it clear that valuable criticism (constructive) is okay, but destructive criticism (complaint) is not. Do away with complaint boxes. Complaining is really a supply side problem!

Fourth, if complaints arise from an illusion of control, then removing the need for control cuts off complaints at the spigot. If we all individually realize that we are not the center of the universe, then complaints would diminish drastically. Ego and complaint are happy bedfellows. Do your bit by exercising personal humility, irrespective of others.

Finally, get a sense of humor, and supersize that to get a life. Funny people don’t complain too much, at least the ones I know! They are too busy having fun, and relinquishing control, they have no need for complaints. If you can laugh at yourself, trust me, you will have no need to complain about others.

People who complain spend a lot of time telling others what to do, and end up not learning from them. Lucky me, I got a class that taught me this lesson about life. I hope I really did learn something, well, I am sure I did – I had good teachers. Here’s to having this much fun again.