How Positivity Drives Productivity

07/14/2014 04:21 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Lily Tomlin said, "Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain," and much of man's complaining happens in the workplace. Whether we gripe to co-workers occasionally or non-stop, we generally think of our complaining as a harmless outlet for frustration. Yet recent research demonstrates that subjecting co-workers to the negative language of complaining impairs their memory, productivity and creativity. Listening to a complainer turns out to be more than just annoying -- it's bad for the brain and expensive for businesses.

A 2011 research study by Thomas Straube of the University of Muenster and another by Go Okada of Hiroshima University concluded that exposure to negative words impairs the formation of memory associations critical to productive work; research conducted by Stanford University's Robert Sapolsky shows how stress from negative influences can shrink the hippocampus, the very part of the brain required to solve problems and drive initiatives. So a bitch session isn't only unproductive, it's counter-productive, depressing cognitive function and dampening can-do spirit.

Complaining is a habit, a behavior ingrained through repetition. Our own habits are generally invisible to us, part of a personal autopilot that allows us to tie our shoes, lock the front door and navigate to our bus stop with little conscious intent. Since communication habits are also part of autopilot, we generally aren't aware of how often we complain or the negative effect such complaining has on others.

Managers who solicit and act on ideas from subordinates turn potential complainers into problem-solvers, nurturing team productivity. And whether you are an occasional or chronic complainer, you can boost the productivity of your team by making fewer petty complaints in the workplace. No need to go entirely cold turkey on complaining; a microresolution targeting a narrow change in behavior can lead to broad results:

  • Resolve not to be the first to complain about an issue at work. If you think that everyone complains as much as you do about management decisions and co-workers, put your theory to the test and see how colleagues respond when you don't take the lead in workplace griping.

  • Resolve to limit your grousing to the lunch hour or (better) after work. Restricting your complaining to free time guarantees that your complaints aren't falling on captive ears and teaches you how to resist the impulse to complain in real-time.
  • Resolve to eliminate one topic of grievance entirely from your workplace conversation. Pick a topic -- weather, transit, cafeteria food, work assignments, idiots in other departments, foul coffee, a chatty colleague -- and vow never to bitch about it again. If you can break the behavioral pattern of complaining in a targeted circumstance, you'll likely find your urge to complain diminishing in general.
  • Resolve never to complain about your team to others. Dissing colleagues to others could boomerang and cause your team to lose prestige, work opportunities, and rewards.
  • Resolve to offer a solution along with any complaint you bring to management or co-workers. Complaining is negative; problem-solving is positive. Contributing ideas to improve your workplace will enhance your reputation as a team player and problem-solver.
  • Adopting any of these microresolutions will reduce workplace negativity from day one. Sustaining a change in behavior requires dedicated focus, so don't work on more than two microresolutions at a time and expect to practice them for at least four weeks before your new behavior begins to feel automatic.

    At the heart of complaining is a sense of personal powerlessness; in contrast, problem-solving is rooted in the belief that one has the power to effect positive change. When you convert complaining into constructive action, you become a more powerful person. Doing differently leads to being different -- resisting just one opportunity a day to complain will unlock some workplace productivity and set powerful personal change in motion.

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