Leadership discretion advised – Habitual Complaining

How it began

I once worked with an energetic, get-it-done leader. He was serious, charismatic yet jovial at the same time. He reminded me of the guy at the back of the class always giggling about an inside joke. Imagine that guy all grown up. Let’s call him Carter.

Like any new colleague I began working with, I treated him with respect. I listened and gauged what I could learn from him. I was excited about his industry perspectives and what I could contribute to our growing relationship. My approach to new teams or leaders has been adapted from a friend of mine who practices yoga religiously. She attends different programs across the city, searching for new techniques and new challenges. Despite being a seasoned yogi, she says that you can learn something from any instructor if you look hard enough.

Carter was a very busy guy, of which I could only get a few minutes of his time when I needed it. You might know the type. You have 30 seconds instead of the 30 minutes you scheduled with him to keep him informed and reach a decision or design an action plan.

One day, I had a really pressing issue that we needed to work on. He arrived late to our meeting, very typical. He spent 15 minutes telling me about a romantic situation between two employees. Carter proceeded to divulge personal details. He told me who, when, how long they’ve been dating and their living situation. He added his commentary on how idiotic he thought the whole situation was. He tells me that he can’t believe he has to waste his time on employees and their nonsense behavior when there is so much work to do.

I thought, “This is so awkward.”

Naturally, I lost a bit of my focus when we finally started our meeting. We needed the meeting to resolve an escalating client issue and schedule a follow-up meeting with the joint executives. Instead, we ran out of time to finish our discussion and had to reschedule a second meeting.

The Habitual Complainer and his subsequent effectiveness

Here’s what could have happened with the same start to our meeting: Carter walks in late, suit wrinkled and his cold lunch in his hands saying, “Jeez, I can’t believe what’s going on right now. Ya mind if I vent?” He could have spoken about the same situation, and a natural reaction would have been 180 degrees in the other direction. We would have shared a mutual, “That sucks” or “I can’t believe that” and moved on. I wouldn’t have thought twice about the exchange.

Rather, the conversation left me uneasy. If a person’s behavior outside of work got him so upset, what happens when someone really makes a mistake at their job? And what about the accused employees? I didn’t even know them. Now my first impression was covered in this detailed account of their relationship. The next conversation with Carter included a bad decision about someone more senior than me. The conversation after that was about a partner he disliked and dismissed, also senior to me.

I try to give people a fair chance. When something happens once, I tell myself, maybe he/she was having a bad day? This wasn’t the case here. Carter’s colored commentary was not a one-time event. He was a repeat offender.

Complaining about colleagues (peers or superiors) broke a Game Rule of Effective Leadership. This behavior damages relationships and morale. Whether it’s upward, downward or sideways, it’s not positive nor moving in that direction. Carter’s behavior was simply not exemplary. I began to lose interest in what he said even when it was beneficial to the project or team. I simply couldn’t hear his messages without replaying conversations we’d had. I lost respect for him.

When you lose respect, you have lost trust. We all want our work relationships to gel. We hope that these relationships are based on solid ground and not having to worry about a minefield of talking behind backs and gossiping, from a senior leader no less.

The project ended, and I never fully regained a level of trust in him as a leader. What I learned was that he behaved impulsively and inappropriately when something really weighed on him.

Lesson learned – Behavior is a true indicator of our leadership effectiveness

There’s a great quote that sums up how speaking negatively can damage morale and relationships from Irwin Federman, General Partner at US Venture Partners. Federman says,

Your job gives you authority. Your behaviour gives you respect.

Email me at jessica@managingmindspaces.com for career questions you have or if you would like a PDF copy of this blog post.

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