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Admit it. We’ve all done it. We’ve all complained at work.

If you read the latest and greatest in leadership books, they would tell you this is a sign of poor organizational culture, and while I do not disagree, where others see a problem, I see potential.

Complaining is a gold mine. When I hear someone complain, what I hear is someone who:

  1. Sees a problem
  2. Cares enough to voice it
  3. Is open to a solution

In other words, complaining is a strong indicator of where to focus change management efforts and indicates a level of buy-in that already exists.

There are a few times when this isn’t the case: If only one person is complaining, if they move on to new complaints regularly and if they never offer solutions or evolve solutions, this might not apply. 

But if you have someone who gets others to complain, you might have an influencer on your hands. If you have someone who tells it like it is, you might have someone who knows your organization well enough to offer real solutions. If you have someone who otherwise performs well, you might have someone who cares about what is best for your members.

So how can you leverage complaining in the office without endorsing a culture of negativity? Here are three steps I recommend taking:

  1. Keep your ear to the water cooler: Be in the know. Don’t hide in your office. Listen to what people are talking about and jump in. To avoid a culture of whispering complaints that turn to silence when you walk in the room, you have to acknowledge and engage in the conversation without minimizing the feelings and experiences of those sharing.  Normalize complaining in front of you in a healthy way.
  2. Isolate the influencer: When you hear a valid complaint, talk to the influencer who you know can use that influence to help you with change management later. Pull out solutions from the influencer, hear them out and if the solution needs tweaking or wouldn’t work for certain reasons, share it openly. Align everything to how it will impact your members, mission and financial sustainability to serve members and mission.
  3. Help them become a champion: Once you’ve heard the complaint and get the influencer to buy in to the solution, empower them to spread that solution informally. This wouldn’t replace you formally sharing new plans, but rather you are leveraging the influencer to get others to see how it is a win for members, the mission and your organization’s sustainability when they have real conversations when you’re not in the room.

By leaning into complaining and leveraging it with normal human nature, you can embrace the positives of a culture that is authentic and transparent instead of hiding from problems others see that might be a blind spot for you. After all, what’s best for our members is what’s best for all of us.

Michael Tatonetti
Post by Michael Tatonetti
February 12, 2020
Dr. Michael Tatonetti is a Certified Association Executive and Certified Pricing Professional on a mission to advance associations in their pricing models for financial sustainability. As the Founder of Pricing for Associations, he and his team work with associations to harmonize pricing and value across membership, education, sponsorship, events, and marketing. He is also the Vice President of Professional Pricing Society, overseeing strategy for education, marketing, membership, and sponsorship. Dr. Michael is a proud Association Forum Forty Under 40 honoree for his dedication to the association field. You can learn more about the work his team is doing at