Few things bother me more than complaining. I’m not referring to actual complaints, the kind where the individual has a legitimate gripe and would like help finding a solution. No, I’m talking about the pointless complaints where the only intent is to voice discontent. If you are watching Feud: Bette and Joan then you know what I mean.
The mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan follows the real-life story of two legendary actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and their legendary quarreling. They constantly complain about each other to studio heads, the director, tabloid columnists, and to their children. While many of their complaints are not without merit, how much did Davis and Crawford accomplish with their relentless critiques? A new study found that complaining may actually make the situation worse.
According to research published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Demeroutia and Cropanzano found that complaining about negative events cements their impact. It seems that discussing these events immediately during or after they occur forces the brain to re-live the negative emotional response. This reinforces the association between the event and the negative emotions, “turning a bad experience into That Bad Experience.” The incident then becomes more memorable and has a more damaging influence on emotional well-being.
When complaining, Demeroutia and Cropanzano concluded that what may have been intended as a short outburst persists until at least the afternoon of the following day. That is over 24 hours of significantly diminished momentary mood, less satisfaction with work, and lower pride in accomplishments.
It is easy to say that the lesson is to ask people to refrain from talking about bad things, however that is not at all the point. When a problem arises we must work towards resolution, and that begins with verbalizing it. But purposeless complaining is not the solution—a more constructive method is to harness your sportsmanship.
Sportsmanship, otherwise known as organizational citizenship behavior, involves a willingness to tolerate workplace inconveniences, annoyances, and discomforts without complaining. A “good sport” can buffer themself from the harmful effects of daily negative work experiences, thereby blocking the formation of salient negative memories.
Demeroutia and Cropanzano determined that individuals with higher levels of sportsmanship processed negative events with the intent of achieving positive outcomes, not complaining for the sake of complaining. As a result, they recovered faster from setbacks. Being free from harmful distractions, they were then able to experience enhanced productivity, display a greater willingness to help co-workers, improve their efficiency, and generate social capital with stronger networks of peers.
Don’t let pettiness get the best of you or allow it to overrun your culture. We are not victims of our circumstances; we have the latitude to evaluate and process the meaning of events and how we choose to react. You can spend your whole career like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but you’ll end up with a bruised ego, few real friends, and a wake of wasted opportunities. They each achieved great things, but a trace of sportsmanship may have resulted in so much more. Learn from them. Make the choice to be a good sport.