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The Difference Between Whining and Telling Necessary Truths

No executive wants to deal with “Vic the Victim” or “Negative Ned”. And no employee really wants to be the perpetual bearer of bad tidings. But the truth, although often inconvenient, is actually a crucial business tool.

Some executives just can’t bear to hear bad news, especially when they don’t see how they can fix the problem situation. And many executives’ aversion to whining is so strong that they explicitly discourage employees from telling a negative story more than once, even when that story is real and true.

But such explicit discouragement can drive critical business problems underground, ensuring that no one can see them well enough to disentangle them. Weird behavior patterns and resentments can result until thoughtful diagnostics and appropriate pressure are applied to the individuals or departments in need of improvement.

When Management Stalls, Problems Complexify

In a real-life example, Company A experienced drastic inventory shortfalls during a time of sales growth. Sales reps complained vociferously to their management that their accounts weren’t receiving the committed merchandise. When management promises to fix the situation didn’t pan out, a couple of sales reps started “stealing” product from the warehouse and hid it elsewhere on premises so they could take care of their own customers.

This unofficial allocation meant that the actual amount of merchandise in stock was overstated, which triggered a cycle of production slowdowns and eventually even greater shortfalls. True allocation wasn’t being tracked and no one’s needs were being met except those of the most entrepreneurial sales reps, who appeared, temporarily, to be the most successful. As a result, even more reps started stashing merchandise. Not only were important customers disappointed, but it took a long time to learn how bad the shortfalls really were and where production levels really needed to be set.

Most employees don’t want to whine. The good ones try hard to work with the problematic structure, department, or person before giving up or looking for workarounds. And since most good employees don’t want to trash their colleagues, even unsuccessful ones, they may purposely avoid necessary conflict or not escalate the problem quickly enough. (Here are some suggestions for coping with colleagues who aren’t playing well together.)

But it’s downright painful and confusing when a senior exec tells a junior: “We know it’s a problem, but we have other things we need to focus on right now.” Or worse: “Yes, we’ve told that department they need to do better.” What’s implied, of course, is, “Keep your nose clean and your head down. Do your own work and stop bellyaching.”

Don’t Silence the Messenger

This kind of silencing can trigger unnecessary heroics at best, and at worst, the turnover of your strongest players. Unfortunately, the most common outcomes include ongoing rework, delays, and barely adequate performance, when what’s desperately needed is clear thinking, inspired implementation, and innovation.

Junior execs, who may not have the know-how or the clout to make “the other department” do better, nonetheless need to know how to raise the issue again. It’s worth going back on record periodically, and at the beginning of every new initiative, to say: “Here’s how I’m going to handle this project. I want to remind you that conditions are not optimal because of the XYZ problem, and here’s how we’ll mitigate that as much as possible. Let me emphasize that if we can find some way to fix XYZ, here are the improvements we’d be able to make in this new initiative.”

Senior execs who seem to tolerate the unsatisfactory situation must differentiate between whiny employees who play the victim and dedicated, forward-looking team players who are reporting hard truths. Senior execs also need to recognize that the information they get from people going on record should be taken into account in actual planning.

That’s true whether the goal is to continue at the current level of mediocre results or to seek real advances; it’s also the case whether improved performance comes through the work of cross-functional task forces, individual coaching and training, or drastic organizational changes. Persistent problems are rarely due to lack of effort, so avoiding complaints is like telling someone who smells a gas leak that they don’t smell anything, or that it’s a normal smell — and then waiting for the explosion.

Onward and upward,


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