The Art of Gripe: A Policy for Intra-Organizational Complaining

There’s a lot of complaining happening in my fire department. If you asked most of management why that is, you’d probably hear something about malcontents or ungratefulness. And that’s half true. But only half true. The thing is that complaining is a perfectly valid form of discussion. My only concern is that you might be doing it wrong. And I should know. When it comes to lamenting the world’s injustices, I happen to be one of the best.

So yes. I’ve decided to start my article on complaining by bragging about how good I am at complaining and then bitching at you for having bad technique. And I might be right if:

  • You tell people to be appreciative and that there’s something wrong with them if they complain.
  • And instead of voicing your own complaints to the people that matter, you spread negativity to people who are in no position to offer a solution because it’s less risky.

This should all stop.

The fact of the matter is, a big part of taking ownership in an organization is pointing out how things could be better. And a big part of leadership is hearing out the complaints of the members. Organizations that have a lot of problems don’t need to spend their efforts silencing the complainers.

Instead, they need to channel that negative energy into positive changes. So instead of shaming members who piss and moan (which might be a sign that they care), let’s just set some ground rules. Once the department members know they can respectfully voice a concern (and actually have their opinions considered), there will be no reason for them to hide their grumbling – a behavior that inevitably leads to festering and division.

What follows is a sort of unofficial policy that can serve as protection for everyone. On the one hand, a member should be safe to voice criticism so long as he/she has followed the rules. On the other hand, following these rules should protect the organization from rampant negativity, echo chambers, malcontentedness, and other toxic culture.

Complainer, follow these rules when airing a grievance.

  1. Have and use a pressure relief valve (PRV). Some thoughts sound justified inside your head. But then once you say it out loud you realize, “Nah. I have no right to be pissed about this.” It’s nice to know that the only person you said that to was a close friend that you can gripe to in confidence, your PRV. Have a really close friend to bitch to and let him/her bitch back with the understanding that some of the time what each of you has to say is nonsense and that’s okay. When complaining to the PRV, none of the other rules in this policy apply.
  2. Only complain in the right place, at the right time, and to the right audience. Complaining about your fire department to a public audience is so obviously wrong it has a cliché name, “airing out dirty laundry.” It is embarrassing for the entire fire service when fire fighters do this.
  3. Speak only the truth. Fact check first. It’s important to admit your biases and keep complaints to what you know to be true. I know most fire fighters are not liars. But I also know that most fire fighters gossip worse than the old people they run on in the nursing homes (complaining about something you don’t actually know to be true is wasted energy for you and the people who have to hear it).
  4. No echo chambers. An echo chamber is a group, team, crew, house, or office made up of individuals who are like-minded on a particular topic and spend significant amounts of time repeating well-known complaints back and forth at each other. There is rarely any disagreement. They build figurative straw men and then sadistically destroy them. These groups give each of the participating members the false impression that their ideas are flawless and that only a fool (or an enemy) would oppose them. It’s a divisive phenomenon that builds isolation.
  5. Be willing to help. I’m not saying it’s your job to fix everything but make sure you consider this option.
  6. Be willing to voice your complaint to the person that is actually able to do something about the problem. Too often, in a department of 500 people, exactly 499 people are aware of the fact that a member screwed up. The 1 person that doesn’t know is the person that did it. Don’t let this be your department.
  7. Don’t complain about opportunities to help people in need (no complaining about calls). It’s important to execute this rule as exhaustively as possible. People who need help (or think they need help) and call the fire department are the reason you have a job. Sometimes people call and it seems unnecessary to you. It’s okay to think that. It’s okay to look for underlying reasons for the call or alternative resources to assist next time. It’s not okay to bitch about the run. Not even at 03:00, not even for a non-emergent reason, and not even for a frequent caller.
  8. Be open to the possibility that you’re just missing something. Steve Jobs said “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” And maybe in that moment, people needed to hear that. But what also needs to be said is that those people were no stupider than you either. Before you charge into some situation and start barking about how much better it could be, try to understand the history and the rationale behind why it is the way it is. You might be missing something major.
  9. Show appreciation for sacrificial leadership. Sometimes a leader is challenged with a question for which there is no good answer. In such a moment, a good leader stands firm in a principled position knowing and accepting that harsh criticism is inbound. Recognize when your leadership has chosen to do this and (whether you agree with the decision or not) respect that he/she was willing to accept that fate. Appreciate the fact that your leader has taken a principled stand even if you don’t like the outcome. And learn from that leader. Be willing to learn so that one day, when it is your turn, you can do the same. If you cannot recognize such a circumstance when it occurs, your perspective on the department is too narrow. (Btw, this is strictly a prescriptive instruction — not a restrictive one. Show appreciation for this particular type of leadership wherever you see it because it is uncommon. This should not be taken to mean that you cannot also voice a dissenting opinion.)
  10. It is what it is. Consider the possibility that you are the unjustified victim of an unnecessary and crappy circumstance. That might be the case and the people that care don’t have the power to change it. If there’s nothing you can do and you’ve exhausted all of your options, either exercise your power of exit or get over it. Every job just has certain crappy parts. Are you willing to leave the department because the situation is that bad? Yes? Don’t forget your exit interview. No? Then look inside yourself for some toughness, contentment, (not a common skill), and joy. Come to peace with the parts of the job that suck so they don’t make you bitter.
  11. Don’t let complaining define your relationships. You spend a lot of time with your crew. After a while, even close crews start to run out of original things to talk about. To fill the time, some crews complain. Driving the rig, over coffee in the morning, sitting in the office, on the way to calls, and shopping for meals some crews in response to the innate need to bond through commonalities discover that the only perspective they agree on is that they are powerless victims in an uncaring world (all while doing the greatest job in the world). These are your brothers and sisters. Be creative and find encouraging things to talk about.
  12. First, count your blessings. You are your only accountability on this. And you are the only person this is designed to protect. For the sake of your own mental health, spend time recognizing just how bad ass it is that you work for the fire department. And if you don’t think that’s bad ass, it’s time to go elsewhere. If you can honestly tell yourself you’ve done this enough, gripe away!
  13. Either go nuclear or take your finger off the button. Don’t just threaten to officially grieve a circumstance via the union, human resources, media, or the law. Usurping the chain of command and using legal representation to demand answers and action is not to be taken lightly. So if you’re willing to claim that what has been done to you, the department, or your community is hostile or illegal, do something about it. Either believe your own hype and take action or reconsider whether your problem is truly as big as you say.

Audience, when receiving a complaint follow these rules.

There’s a few rules for officers and supervisors to consider here as well. Remember that complaining has a bad reputation because it often gets out of control but it can (should) be a good thing.

  1. Be willing to listen to and consider the gripes of others. Be willing to either do something to help or explain why you won’t.
  2. A solution is not prerequisite for voicing a concern.
  3. Be willing to admit your mistakes.
  4. Be willing to explain why things are the way they are. Be willing to explain why things are unlikely to change.
  5. Understand that just because you don’t see the solution, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Don’t be too quick to shut down a complaint just because you think it’ll go no where.

I don’t intend to excuse any particular type of complaining. Whether someone is being toxic or helpful often comes down to individual judgement. Just know that it has its place and that when it’s out of control, you need some good tools to reign it in. Above all else, remember that your fire brothers and sisters are like a type of family. And just like any other family, it’s more important to encourage them than to point out their flaws.

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