On the Way Out? Complaining

A frequent but difficult to detect sign that a valued employee may be considering a new position is an increase in the general level of grumbling – particularly when the company is focus.  The trick is separating this increase from the background level of griping that goes on every day and attributing an accurate cause to it.

People love to criticize.  Hardly a day seems to go by where we don’t complain about multiple things that touch our lives.  From grumbling over a rotten night’s sleep, to critiquing other drivers on the road, to offering complaints about inane commercials, complaints are a part of our everyday lives.  And nowhere do we complain and criticize more than at work.

I’m not going to get into a long missive about whether such belly-aching is justified – suffice it to say that everyone seems to have their own ideas about how things should be done at the company, and most are more than happy to express these – sometimes loudly and often.  It is a simple fact of life, and one that managers must learn to live with as best they can.

Certainly not all criticism is unjustified – if fact, plenty of it is useful if taken the right way.  I am simply pointing out that complaining is pervasive in the workplace.

Generally speaking, the more unhappy an employee is with their work situation, the more likely they are to complain.  This seems to be true regardless of the “complaining baseline” for that person.  When an employee’s “complaint quotient” moves upward, it’s a tip-off that change may be in the wind.

I’ve noticed this very characteristic in myself.  When happily employed by one company, I rarely had criticisms to offer.  In fact, I might have drunk the Kool-Aid, expending significant effort to justify why senior management, the company, and even my direct supervisor, behaved the way they did.  As the time of my departure approached, however, I noticed a change in my own attitude.  First the overt support of management stopped, and shortly afterward I found myself grumbling about practically everything.

The trick is to spot such a change when you’re a manager.  Being reasonably circumspect and a bit introverted, I wasn’t standing on tables in meetings and shouting about how dumb my boss was.  I did my bellyaching to trusted coworkers and friends, while specifically avoiding the display of my altered attitude to management.  Although I was looking for a new position, without a job in hand I had no idea how long I would need to gut this one out.  There was definitely no upside to letting them think I was anything other than a happy, engaged employee.

Even when the employee is guarded, however, there are a few tricks you can use to detect this sign of impending departure.

Valuable employees tend to complain less.  This isn’t necessarily always the case – point in fact, I’ve seen some phenomenal salespeople who endlessly complained about how they were “supported” by other members of company management.  In most cases, however, it has been my experience that better employees are much less likely to emit a constant stream of grievances.  What you need to look for as a change in their complain behavior – even a subtle one.  If an employee has historically been hesitant to offer even mild, seemingly-benign critiques in your presence, when those start appearing with regularity you should be suspicious.

A better way to spot changes is to learn what they say to their friends, colleagues, and confidants.  Getting such information will often be fourth hand – your “agent” gathering data from the confidants, and so it can be somewhat unreliable.  With a little training, your own friends and allies will be able to glean such information on your behalf.  Unfortunately, you typically will not be able to directly act on information obtained in this manner, but when something suspicious comes up it should set wheels in motion to spot some of the other signs that an employee might be “On the Way Out.”

I unerringly asked my secretaries to keep an eye and ear open for exactly this kind of information.  Often I would also request other subordinates in the organization to “tip me off” about impending problems (like a coming departure,) assuring them that I would not disclose my source.  This worked quite well on numerous occasions.  The first time you hang an “informant” out to dry however, your sources will start to dry up.

Once you have identified an increase in grousing, it is time to search for other tell-tale signs of an impending departure.  Because the motivation for increased complaining can come from many sources, it is almost never enough by itself to draw a definitive conclusion.  Watch for oddly scheduled vacation time, suspicious emails, stepping back, and the other signs I’ve already discussed in posts in this series.  With a little perseverance, you should be able to confirm you have a departure risk with plenty of time to take compensating actions.

Other Posts in this Series:

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To the right is the cover of the Audiobook version of INCENTIVIZE.  This novel is about a U.S. based mining company, and criminal activity that the protagonist (a woman by the name of Julia McCoy) uncovers at the firm's Ethiopian subsidiary.  Her discover sets in motion a series of events that include, kidnapping, murder, and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.