Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Those People

When you hear "those people are always complaining" then you're probably looking at a systemic problem. 

It's probably not a personality flaw; it's probably that the system in play disadvantages them constantly. It's easier to do victim-blaming, but maybe it's time to investigate.

The Fundamental Attribution Error is too easy to fall into, especially when it allows you to write off a whole group of people you don't know how to please.

This isn't a social justice thing (only), but it's an organizational thing. "Testers are all whiners", "the programmers are always grumpy", "middle managers are so brusque and rude", "ops people are jerks"
Which group "always complains" where you work... and have you ever looked at the systemic reasons for that?

I've heard leaders say "QA people are all whiners" when their way of working seemed to always bring testing professionals in at the end of a (late) project and then pressure them to rush through the testing so that the product can be released (almost) on time. These poor people have to learn an entirely new system, including all the configuration options, develop rich varieties of data scenarios, and put the system through its paces on outrageously short schedules and with no budget to try alternative tools and techniques which might make the work easier. "All whiners" because the company put them in a difficult situation time after time. 

Likewise, I've heard it of developers because they "just want to take a break" to clean up the code base that is becoming progressively more crufty, convoluted, and messy until it is significantly impeding their process and they accidentally inject unforeseen errors until over 70% of their time is trying to reproduce and resolve defects. They are told that they are lazy because they are not producing features as fast as before, and when they ask for some help to make the code less awful they get labeled "complainers."

I've heard it of executives. Of team managers. Of tech leads. Of middle management. Of product managers. Of sales. 

I'm especially concerned when the "whiners" are customer service and operations. Something is wrong when the people most directly involved in the users' lives are the ones in the pinch. 

Look for "the pinch."

He Is Just A Complainer

Some people do complain more than others.

And which individuals? Are they really getting an unfair deal? Are they speaking for their peers? What's really going on here? What if it's not "just personality" or "just that kind of person"?

Some people refuse to talk about problems. Sometimes they get used to the problem, and it's easier to just be quiet and endure it than to bring it up and be accused of being a "complainer type." 

Often it is people who don't take the job seriously who won't complain about it. A friend of mine used to have a part-time evening job. He just repeated the words "paid by the hour" over and over in his head as he did the most unpleasant and menial parts of that job. 

There is a class of people who are afraid to converse with their bosses and other people in power. They're trying to preserve their position, and the quality and speed of the work don't matter. They're not going to be the person who does the complaining; it would attract unwanted attention. Better to suffer in silence.

There is also a group of people who have learned that negativity doesn't help as much as positive influence, so they try to improve all their work with a positive attitude and small, local actions. They build alliances and they make suggestions, but they don't complain. These people are gold, but sometimes they're going to gloss over system problems that can not be solved with local changes and a positive attitude. Big problems are above their pay grade.

Again, it's easy to fall into the Fundamental Attribution Error: it's easy to say that people are complaining because they're negative, fragile people, especially if they are not of the same demographic as the one they're complaining to (but let's not go into that here).

People who are chronically and systemically disadvantaged will naturally complain the most. That's perfectly reasonable. How else would we become aware of the problems of a system? 

It is possibly not because they're fragile, weak, privileged, or a bunch prima donnas.

Maybe it's because the system treats them as second-class citizens, or because people write them off instead of listening.

Make the Symptoms Stop

Often people only want to stop the complaining.

This might be reasonable when people are complaining about the inconvenience of the in-between states while a problem is being solved ("look, I know you need your car, but I'm replacing the transmission and it's going to take a couple of hours to have it all finished and tested").  

Sometimes a hard decision was made: there had to be a reduction in force to prevent the company from going under, and there's not much that can be done about that now. Nobody feels good about it, but had it not happened, a lot more people would be a lot more unhappy. Everyone would have been happy if the company could have increased revenue, but that wasn't achieved and it sucks. 

Sometimes, however, people don't want to address the problem. They want everyone else to accept it (as they, themselves, have). Maybe they don't like people complaining because they hate to admit that they are at fault or have sustained a problem that they have personally benefitted from: "the system is unfair, but it works for me and I am unwilling to surrender my meager advantage."

It's inconvenient and depressing to hear about problems. Maybe we can just hush them up and get on with our work. After all, they call it "work", right?

But when someone complains to you, they're bringing you a problem that they'd like to help solve, or to have solved for them. Isn't having fewer problems in the org a good thing? How important is it to perpetuate the problems?

Of course, there is this bizarre situation where people want to complain, but they don't actually want the problem solved. They'll fight you to keep the problem going, but they hate it just the same. Maybe the complaining is how they're trying to establish rapport?  It's very confusing to me. Maybe we should dig deeper here. There is something strange and cultural and human in it.

Culture of "Better"

When you hear "people are always complaining, just ignore them" -- is that a sign your company culture is not based on solving the problems it has (or creates)? Is it that awful for people to work with us? What can we do to make the struggles of our daily work either easier or more worthwhile?

How can we "make people awesome", "delivery value continuously", "make safety a prerequisite"? Can we experiment and learn to see what works? Where do we start to build a culture of making things better?

If you are a complainer, then I have some special advice for you.

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