Jack irritates you at work. He is on your project team, and your frustration with his laziness and lax standards are driving you crazy (again). So you pop into Susan’s (another co-worker) office to complain about your co-worker.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
You have inadvertently started a firestorm that has the potential to further erode your relationship with Jack, compromise your relationship with Susan and sabotage the trust and cohesion that exists within the team. Of course, you didn’t mean to cause problems; you simply wanted to vent your annoyance.
Do’s and don’ts of complaining about a co-worker
Here are four reasons why complaining about one co-worker to another is never a good idea, and four things you can do instead that may help:
1. When it comes to complaining about a co-worker, venting has a bite.
It’s one thing to vent outside of work to someone not associated with the team, where trusted friends can help you craft a path forward with the object of your frustration. But at work, on a team, it may feel at best like gossip and at worst like total and complete betrayal to the person in question. Broken trust is hard, if not impossible, to rebuild.
What to do instead: Talk with personal friends, ask for empathy for your challenges and then take your issue straight to the source. The last step is the most important, as it eliminates the dangerous triangle that gossip creates.
2. The innocent co-worker you speak with can’t help but be affected by your perspective.
Susan, in the scenario above, may have previously really liked and trusted Jack. But now that you have complained about your co-worker, her view of Jack may be forever tainted. She may no longer see him in a positive light, and may now seek confirmation of the problems you mentioned whereas before she open-heartedly interacted with him in true partnership. Plus, she now has to try to keep a secret, since you asked her not to share anything, so she has to suppress what she knows you feel about Jack every time she sees him.
What to do instead: If you need it, ask the uninvolved colleague for feedback on your approach in talking to the person in question, rather than complaining about their behavior. This makes it about you, not them. Make sure you let them know that your intention is to work it out with the other person, and that you know you have contributed to the problem.
3. Trust is the primary currency of healthy partnership, and complaining about your co-worker behind their back erodes trust.
To trust, we must be vulnerable, and at work that may mean admitting mistakes, showing what we don’t know or asking for help. While we can learn and grow from critical feedback, if we give feedback through gossip, it may erode the faith and confidence between co-workers.
What to do instead: Spend time thinking about and preparing to deliver feedback to the colleague who annoys you in a caring, concise and clear way. While they may not eradicate the annoying behavior, at least they can now begin working on it. What really matters is that you are clear, direct, caring and compassionate. Your goal is to learn to work better with them, not to draw a line in the sand about them changing.
4. Most of us want to know the truth, and strive to improve once we get it.
Despite the fact that we may feel like running screaming to the hills when we hear those dreaded words, “May I give you some feedback?” many employees also crave it—though, on the flipside, many people giving feedback misjudge whether people want to hear it. The impression we make on others is our impact at work, and many of us want to embrace and learn from the observations of others. Jack, in this scenario, is not consciously trying to annoy you. Bringing his behavioral impact on you to his attention guarantees that at least the two of you now have a basis for co-learning and sharing as you work together.
What to do instead: Offer feedback in the spirit of learning and with an intention to remain in partnership, rather than exit stage left. In addition to giving feedback, ask for it, so that you can walk your talk with this colleague. What do you have to learn?
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by bbernard/Shutterstock
Moe Carrick is the founder of Moementum Inc. and has woven a cohesive and provocative tapestry of personal leadership experiences, Fortune 100 consulting, academic and institutional learning, keynote addresses, authorship, strategic partnering, and masterful facilitation. Moe grounds her approach in a unifying and undeniable truth: Successful work is dependent upon human relationships. And she feels privileged to work with clients currently such as Prudential Financial, REI, Nike, TechSoft3D and many others.