01/31/2011 09:02 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Workarounds: How to Overcome Complaints and Build Your Contribution Capital

Do you know people who belong to the Ain't It Awful Club? Perhaps you are a member yourself. You know the members of this club -- they gather to play one-downsmanship: "You think that's bad? Wait until you hear this one!"

Unless you really are a charter member of the "Ain't It Awful Club, you probably don't need to hear another dose of someone else's complaints. What do you find yourself doing when a co-worker comes to you with another complaint about how those people in production just don't get it? Do you open your arms and embrace the opportunity to be buried in negativity one more time, or do you look for some way to cut this short?

The problem with complaints and complaining may be somewhat counterintuitive. My workaround suggestion for dealing with complaints is to actually embrace the complaint and the one complaining, but from a very different perspective. The goal of this workaround is to turn the negative aspect of the complaint into something positive that you and the one complaining can use to make improvements.

The first thing to recognize is that more often than not, the complaint has some degree of validity to it. Maybe the folks over there in production are slow; maybe they do make mistakes on building to specifications; maybe they do turn a deaf ear to suggestions that would work better for the customer.

Starting with the assumption that there might be something of value in the complaint is good, even necessary, but it is not sufficient to really make a difference -- unless, of course, you want to become the dumping ground for everyone else's complaints: "Hey, Mikey over there is the perfect guy to complain to; he just takes over the problem and does it for you." If you're the type who does take on everyone else's complaints, then they're the ones who have found the perfect workaround to having to actually do some work -- they just complain to you and problem gone!

Instead, while looking for the value hidden in the complaint, also look for the value hidden in the one doing the complaining.

My favorite workaround for complaints is to transform complaints into contributions, and to build what I call the "contribution capital" of the person who is complaining to you. (This is something like building an investment account. In this case, you are building an investment account of positive action and problem solving.) Another bit of counterintuitive thinking here: the person who complains at least cares enough to complain! The co-worker you really have to be concerned about is the one who doesn't even care enough to say anything.

If you would like to play with this kind of workaround for complaints and the Ain't It Awful Club, you will need to keep in mind the combination of hidden value and hidden caring. The next time someone lands at your desk with a complaint, turn the situation around by using this workaround formula:

  1. Start by acknowledging the person for caring enough to say something: "Hey, thanks for bringing this to me. It's pretty clear you care about what's happening in production, so let's take a look at the situation."
  2. Then begin to turn the critical part of the complainer's brain into a creative contributor: "What can you imagine this looking like if it worked better? Maybe not perfect, but at least better?" If you're going to turn this person into a contributor who solves puzzles, then you will need to help them find the picture that goes on top of the puzzle box. (As we pointed out last week, turning problems into puzzles points you in the direction of solutions, rather than staying mired in problems.)
  3. Once you have helped them imagine an improved puzzle picture, then you can use the magical workaround question that will work in just about any situation. This workaround question is one you can apply to yourself if you hear yourself complaining, just as easily as you can use it to turn around the person standing over your desk complaining about those folks in production. Simply ask the one complaining: "What could you do that would make a difference that requires no one's permission other than your own?"
  4. You may need to stay with this question for a few minutes and help the person come up with two or three steps that they can take on their own. You may need to encourage the person that you're not asking them to go from zero to hero in one simple question, that you're not looking for something that is "perfectionally correct," just something that is "directionally correct."

The goal of this workaround approach is to get the person moving, to get the issue moving. Once something is moving, it is a heck of a lot easier to steer toward the target. Staying dead stuck in complaint is only going to build more hurdles to improvement, so let's get going. You can build on improvement a whole lot easier than you can build on negativity and criticism.

If you do manage to help the complainer, whether the complainer is yourself or someone else, you will find that slowly, over time, the complainer will turn into someone who is building their contribution capital. Just about any manager of people will welcome with open arms those people who care enough to get involved and get things moving that might be stuck.

Goodness knows we have more than enough members of the Ain't It Awful Club. So, go ahead and open membership for the Contribution Capital Club. The numbers may be small to begin with, but membership may well become a prized badge of distinction.

I'd love to hear your instances of turning complaints into solutions. Please leave a comment here, or drop me an e-mail to let me know your experience.


If you would like a free chapter of Russell's new book, "Workaround That Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way At Work," click here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can contact Russell by e-mail at