From Whining to Winning: How to Complain at Work and Get Ahead


This post’s key takeaways:

  1. If you complain to your boss more than just rarely, you risk losing their engagement and support
  2. Managers typically respond to complaints in one of three ways: with sympathy, with action or with apathy; learning how to read these signals is critical
  3. Employees who turn complaints into opportunities are good; those who go the extra step to propose a real solution are great
  4. Download a template to propose your solution in a professional, well thought out and buttoned up way; your boss will thank you for it


Reading Your Manager’s Reaction

How to Complain the ‘Right’ Way

Qualify the Complaint

Propose the Solution, Like a Pro


Have you ever worked for an organization where the people are so wonderful and smart, the products so innovative and flawless and the processes so streamlined and efficient that all of your work gets done without stress or deliberation?

No? Oh. What a shame.

At least, it would be if there was even the remotest of possibilities that such a corporate utopia existed. Because as we all know, it most definitely does not. Instead of being greeted with rainbows, sunshine and puppies when we swipe our key cards, most of us are met with problems, issues and urgent requests. Stacks of papers and overflowing inboxes are our norm… voicemails that should have been answered by now and meetings that seem to play on repeat day after day. So who, in this constant churn and chaos, could fault you for complaining once in a while?

Well, as it turns out, your manager. And your peers. And senior leadership. But mostly, your manager.

Misery may love company, but when that company is your manager,  you’re running the risk of cashing in some hard earned corporate capital if you’re bending his or her ear with one too many vent sessions. That’s not to say that you can’t complain, but it is to say that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Complaining is, to a large extent, a natural form of release, which many of us need in order to fuel our productivity. It can be cathartic, to out the kinks in the company cogs and can even be an effective tool in building camaraderie. People have bonded over much less, so sharing in a dish about work’s wackier moments is often a springboard for a fruitful relationship moving forward.

Reading Your Manager’s Reaction

But while complaining has some pros, it also has its fair share of cons. Much of the downside is obvious (the reputation it can generate for your internal brand can be less than stellar,) but what can be less clear is how complaining can affect the nuances of the relationship you have with your manager.

To see why, let’s first dissect the three styles in which a typical manager responds when being approached with a complaint:

1. Sympathetic, but stumped—“I wish I could help, but I don’t know how.”

The manager in this mode lends an ear and wants to solution, but can’t (they neither know how to fix it nor whom to go to for help.) They feel a sense of duty and responsibility to get the issue resolved but aren’t able to, and as a result, accept a transfer of emotional burden from the complainer with no easy way to offload. You may walk away from the conversation feeling lighter, but your manager most likely feels just the opposite.

2. At attention, and ready for action—“Keep talking; I’m already putting a plan together.”

As soon as the alarm goes off that a complaint is forthcoming, the manager who employs this style jumps into ready mode. They’re actively solutioning while you’re downloading. Their goal is to provide value and manage the situation in real time. This manager is of the servant leader orientation, and sees their role as obstacle remover in chief. They operate from the position that if the complaint can be resolved, productivity will be maintained, or better yet, increased. The problem here is simple-if you just wanted to vent, but didn’t really need a solution, your manager just expended a bunch of energy for… what?

3. Annoyed and apathetic—“Why are you telling me this? I have enough going on.”

Complaining to a manager that is feeling this way is a bad move. Most employees who do this are not reading the (perhaps obvious) signs that the manager is providing. As you’re downloading, they’re half listening, checking the time and willing an interruption so they can end the conversation. If subtlety is not their strong suit, they may ignore you outright, or remind you that sometimes the squeaky wheel gets no oil, but instead gets replaced.

When you get #1 or #2 as a response, the good thing is that your manager is engaged, actively listening and wanting to support. But beware… if your complaints get more frequent (or even, more detailed,) you are daring #3 to happen. If you feel like you’re in the #3 zone, you need to get yourself together, or move yourself out. Managers who are under pressure in ways you may have no insight into will shut employee issues out so they can concentrate on their own. And if your major perceived contribution seems to be broadcasting problems, your issues (and potentially meeting requests) may be the first to be deleted.

How to Complain the ‘Right’ Way

The secret to complaining the ‘right’ way is to do three things:

  • Qualify your complaint up front and let your manager know what you need from them before divulging
  • If you want something done about the issue, don’t bring it up as a complaint, but instead as an opportunity

And here is the magic:

  • Come to the table with a proposed solution!

Problem identifiers are a dime a dozen, but problem solvers not so much. If you can evolve from just talking about what should be done to being a part of how to actually do it, you will elevate yourself from the pack, because operating from this perspective is truly the exception and not the rule.

Qualify the Complaint

Understand that most managers want to help their teams. When they hear a complaint, they want to jump in with the assist. Going into that mode means potentially taking on additional stress, reprioritizing their own project load (depending on the nature/urgency of your complaint) or having difficult conversations with peers in order to resolve the situation you’ve brought up. If you don’t need them to do any of that, let them know that—up front.

If that’s the case, it’s most likely that you’re wanting to engage in:

Fraternal complaining, aka “the vent”—when you want to complain like this, you’re simply looking to get the issue off of your chest. You’re neither looking for, nor expecting, a solution—you just want to gripe. If this is where your head is at, lead with something like this: “Hey, do you have a few minutes? I need to vent. I don’t expect you to fix it, but I just need to bend your ear so I can mentally move on. Cool?” Now the manager knows they can relax and be a sounding board instead of the solution. If done sporadically, many managers will actually see this as a positive indicator that you and he/she have a strong, trusting relationship, and will appreciate your occasional downloads as a way to bond.

If it’s not a simple vent you’re looking for, but more a real problem that needs real attention, switch up your approach to:

Complaining with a cause, aka “opportunity identification”—often, the best ideas come from a need to solve a current problem. If you’re approaching your manager with a complaint in need of resolution, frame it as an opportunity waiting to be seized upon. Chances are that if you’re close to the problem, you’ve already spent time thinking about ways to fix it. So instead of identifying the problem, consider identifying the solution and enroll your manager into supporting your proposed fix. Say something like this: “I think I’ve found a way to save money/time/resources. Do you have a few minutes to take a look at this proposal and give me your feedback?”

Propose the Solution, Like a Pro

Whether the opportunity (see that, no more complaining!) you’re looking to discuss is small or large, the way you present the solution should be professional, well thought out and buttoned up. If you make it easier for your manager to socialize your solution up the chain (if additional buy-in is required,) the faster it will get approved. Said another way: don’t just talk and walk. If you take the time to put your proposal in writing, you’ll get to your end goal faster… and you’ll also get a healthy side of respect from your boss too.

I like to use a proposal template like this to turn issues into opportunities. This flow will help you to get five major points across about the problem/opportunity you’re looking to highlight: current state, future state, steps to get from current to future, contingencies and benefits of moving from current to future state. This might sound complicated, but I assure you it’s not. It’s logical and if you take the time to fill this template out, you’ll walk into your boss’s office like the boss you are, with a solid proposal in hand and the printout to prove it.

Giving your manager what is essentially a playbook on how to solve a problem is not only good for your optics, but also for theirs as they go up line. Think about it—if you make it easier for your manager to get things done by doing the heavy lifting, who on the team do you think your manager will be more willing to go out on a limb for? And it’s not just about making your boss look good, it’s also about time too.

It’s rare in today’s cost driven corporate landscape to have managers who just coach. Many, if not most, are player-coaches, meaning they not only manage a team, but are responsible for producing their own deliverables as well. In that scenario, the manager may have the title and responsibility of being the boss, but has just as many work related challenges as you do. Their prioritization efforts likely include more tasks than you’re aware of, so being cognizant of the fact that doing the leg work will give you a leg up is key to your long term success on the team.

Remember this if you remember nothing else: no company lacks in employees who can identify problems, but most lack in employees who take the time to solve them. Propose, solve and resolve—and ride that mantra to the front of your pack.

There are many more details on how to make a good proposal included in the template. Use it and make it your own.

If you like this post, don’t like it, can think of 1-2 ways I could have made it better or just have questions, leave a comment below.

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