To complain or not to complain…


It always begins innocently, doesn’t it? “I’m just venting,” you think to yourself. But the more it goes on, the more infectious and toxic it becomes. One complaint easily snowballs into an avalanche of dissatisfaction. Before you know it, you can be pegged as the negative one that your coworkers try to avoid. Has this become the reality of today’s workplace? Why do we do it? How do we deal with it? Is there anything healthy to become of it?

If you stop and take a moment to observe, you’ll find that complaining has become an integral part of most people’s daily verbal communication. According to author and Clemson University professor, Robin Kowalski, PhD, there are two basic categories of complaints: instrumental and expressive.

Instrumental complaints are goal-oriented, meaning that we verbalize the problem in hopes of bringing about change. For example, you rant to your coworkers about how messy and disorganized the medication room is, because you are really hoping they’ll offer to help tidy it up. You gripe about how hard it is to keep up with the repositioning of an obese total care patient, in the hopes of a coworker offering his muscle at the next interval.

Expressive complaints have a different agenda: to allow the complainer to get something off his or her chest. When you use your evaluation session to wail to the boss that the unit has been unusually acute and stressful, you’re not looking for a budget restraint explanation. It’s acknowledgement and sympathy you’re seeking. “Even complaining about a driver who cut you off can be healthy, provided you feel better once you get it out,” Kowalski says. But there is a downside: Some people abuse expressive complaining, grumbling incessantly with no vested motivation for dialogue, problem solving or human connection.

Complaining can do more than just connect you to others in the same boat. A complaint can be a tool for what Kowalski calls “impression management,” or molding how people perceive us. When a coworker gripes about how she’s so busy with her patient assignment, she is employing a subset of expressive complaining. She might be trying to convince her coworkers that she is important and valued by her work.

According to Kowalski’s research, people with healthy self-esteem are more apt than others to register instrumental complaints. This is most likely because they are confident their grievances are legitimate, and they believe that complaining could make a difference. For some people, speaking out against whatever seems to bother them or bring them dismay is a way of asserting that they matter.

Complainers have the ability to find fault with everything and have their accusatory style down so perfectly that they manage to turn the tables on people, putting others immediately on the defensive. There are also complainers who tend to specialize in complaining to one person about another person who isn’t present to defend himself or herself. Complaining is the behavior of people who feel powerless, want change, but won’t risk anything themselves. They want to remain blameless in all situations.

Misery loves company, and some individuals are just not happy in any situation. These people are not afraid to complain, and do it often and vocally. But in a professional work environment, negativity often means lower productivity and staff morale. Complainers typically seek out others who will share their grief. Your best bet is to listen respectfully if someone approaches you to vent, but not to join in. Sooner or later, the complainer will stop using you as a sounding board and you will not have to risk being labeled a negative employee.

The way to formally cope with a complainer is to insist that a problem-solving perspective be taken toward their complaints. Listen attentively so the complainer can let off steam and then paraphrase their main points. Acknowledge what you are hearing, but be careful not to agree. Ask the complainer for specific problem solving suggestions. The complainer needs to see how the very act of complaining will lead to direct involvement they may want to avoid.

How does one decide if complaining is good or bad? In our society, we are programmed to smile, have a nice day, and pretend everything’s okay even when it’s not. That is simply unrealistic. This emphasis on always seeing the bright side can encourage people to mask their unhappiness and swallow a gripe that will eventually fester and poison their psyche.

Complaints can be healing. Constructive griping seems to be an essential life skill. Don’t act as though your complaints trump all others. Choose an appropriate listener and try to reach an acceptable resolution.

Unhealthy complainers bellyache to anyone who happens to be in their path. They often don’t pick up on people’s cues that they have had their fill of negativity. Chronic complainers get stuck in a victim mode that irritates those around him. This type of person tends to be the kind that loves to talk at length and will reject any bit of advice you offer.

Bad complainers are annoying at best, depressing at worst. They foster the spread of negativity and give griping a bad name. If you really need to complain, go ahead because for most of us, tucked behind the venting is a basic human psychobiological need—a connection with others. If you keep out of the negative situations that arise, you’ll save yourself a great deal of heartache in the future. Remember that the workplace is an environment that mixes a wide variety of personality types. The trick is staying true to yourself, getting your job done, and doing what you can to ensure you are happy at the end of each day.


Catherine Meliniotis works as a clinical nurse director on a Zen-like harmonious acute-care unit.


Selected reference

Kowalski RM. Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors. Yale University Press;2003.

Bonus: Finding perspective

How often do you say something like:

“That’s not my job.”

“This unit couldn’t survive without me.”

“I should be making more money.”

If that sounds like you, you have no one to blame but yourself. You are complaining about the outcome of decisions that you have made; after all, you chose your job, the pay you receive, and the way you behave.

You are not entitled to anything.

The only way to change your results is by altering your attitude and striving to become a more valuable version of yourself. To become more valuable, you must first realize how valuable you are now. Ask yourself:

“Whom do I serve?”

“What service do I provide for these people?”

“How can I provide more?”

Tom Richard, author of Smart Sales People Don’t Advertise, suggests that you focus your energy on the quality of service you provide while at work. Forget about what the person next to you is doing. Spend your time wisely to increase the amount of value you offer. Pledge to learn something new everyday. Traditional education doesn’t always prepare you for the real world. The skills and experience you collect while on the job is usually what prepares you for your station in life. Accept the fact that you are never done learning. Renew your passion for your work by sharpening your craft constantly. Lastly, hold on to your seats, do more than you are paid for. Quit whining about the duties you are asked to do that aren’t listed in your job description.

If you truly want to evolve into a more valuable worker, you must go the extra mile without expecting reward for it. Do it because you are proud of the service that you provide and want to increase the amount of value you give to society.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.


  • Richard DeColli
    July 15, 2019 8:52 pm

    Awesome read

  • Malinda Poduska
    April 25, 2019 1:43 pm

    Excellent article. I worked for years with someone who complained constantly. I completely forgot what brought me joy in the nursing profession and I did feel like a victim until that employee left the employment setting. I am now feeling like a young nurse and excited to go to work. I cannot stress how important it is to stay away from negativity.

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