Stop the Whining: How to End Corrosive Complaining

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 9:05 AM EDT

If you run a company full of smart people, they will find faults and mistakes everywhere, and they'll complain. That's fine. It can become destructive, though, if it evolves into a culture of complaint.

I learned this lesson when I had my first experience working as a consultant, for a Massachusetts software start-up called Vertigo Technology. As you can tell from the name, the founders had high expectations of their own success -- expectations which were unrealized when the company closed down in the late 1990s. It had been packed with many brilliant people, many of whom went on to achieve big successes elsewhere.

But this company was destroyed by its own internal demons. Everyone found fault with corporate strategy, tactics, products, sales, marketing, right down to the Standard Operating Procedure guidelines for taking a shower on company premises. (No, I'm not joking.)

At first, I found the company's openness exhilarating. How democratic that everyone could speak their mind! But after a year or so, I came to see that everyone spent more time arguing abstractions than producing profits. The company became what venture capitalists call "the living dead" -- bringing in enough revenue to cover costs but never building a company anyone would want to buy.

Later, I realized our fatal flaw lay in chronic complaining: We didn't distinguish between the faults that have to be fixed and the faults you can't afford the time to fix. The memory haunted me when I started my first technology company. Determined to curtail the whining, I introduced a rule: all complaints to me had to be accompanied by at least one proposed solution. The rule was a big success. Here's why:

  • It made people consider why things were the way they were, and what the costs of fixing them might be. Many aspects of a business aren't perfect but just aren't worth fixing. The cost, in terms of time, attention and resources, is too high, the return too slight. But it takes time for a leader to explain that, and it's better if your employees figure it out for themselves. They learn to prioritize, just as you have had to.
  • It helped me, as the chief executive, distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Nothing is more important in running a business than creating an environment in which everyone feels welcome to raise questions, concerns and doubts. If you create the conditions in which legitimate concerns are raised easily, each employee is an early warning system. But you want everyone focused on fixing the faults that have real impact.
  • It generated good ideas. Instead of my software engineers complaining that the sales team made impossible promises, they asked to go on sales calls to ensure promises were practical. That didn't just save a lot of anger and disappointment; it meant we could also offer easy product enhancements the sales team had never dreamed of.
  • It made every employee act and feel like an owner. They took responsibility for a business they felt invested in, rather than behaving like whining children.
So many companies become the walking dead when they focus on complaints rather than solutions. Does your company have a culture of complaint? If it does, what are you doing about it?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on