Eleonore Breukel is the author of over 100 articles for various business magazines, newspapers and the virtual media.

She co-authored a book on how to do business in 19 countries across the world.

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Turn the complaint culture into a culture of positive attitudes

By Eleonore Breukel -

In our training sessions, we regularly receive this type of question from participants: “Why is my Russian colleague always so negative? Is it something I did wrong?” asks Tom from London. Our answer is: “On the contrary Tom, your Russian colleague trusts you enough to share his concerns with you. Actually he is trying to be friends and bond with you.”

Bonding by complaining
In Western Russia, many Eastern European cultures and various cultures in Southern Europe and Latin America, people try to bond with others by complaining. Complaints about the boss or about tasks to be performed or simply about the food, places people ‘together’ in a common situation in which they can relate to each other - bonding with the suffering majority. These complaints are usually expressed with emotion. However, it is passive and is not followed by an action to change the situation that is complained about.

An outsider will get the impression that something terrible has happened and that the complainer is deeply unhappy. This however is not the case.

There are many reasons for such behavior depending on the context. Some of the underlying reasons may be uncertainty, risk avoidance, xenophobia, fatalism and the feeling of not being in charge as well as being unable to create or accept change.

Seeking appraisal by complaining
Another reason people complain is to seek appraisal. The complainer feels that they have to show and communicate how problematic life or a task is in order to be taken seriously by his boss, colleagues and others.

In this case the complainer seeks admiration, respect and compliments for his skills and the effort put into the task.

The mirror
For those coming from a mindset where one bonds by communicating something positive like “isn’t this interesting” or “let us make this work” complaining is seen as negative. For these people, someone who frequently complains at work is seen as being inadequate for the job.

Frequent complaining in a social setting is seen as whining and complainers are not taken seriously. In this case, ‘frequent’ means complaining several times a day. Complainers are seen as negative and dissatisfied people whom no one likes to work or socialize with.

In case one does complain he is expected to take action to change the situation he complains about.

When we look at the American corporate language, we see that the word ‘problem’ has a negative connotation. Therefore, Americans substituted the negative word ‘problem’ by the word ‘challenge’ which has a positive connotation. The word ‘problem’ implies a negative situation, while the word ‘challenge’ has a ‘yes we can change it’ positive type of energy and action in it.

Ideas for creating a positive attitude for everyone
  • If you have members in your multicultural team who complain to bond or seek appraisal and like to try to create a more positive attitude try the following;
  • Explain how you experience complaining.
  • Discuss the different interpretations of complaining in various cultures. Show how stimulating it can be to have a positive approach towards work.
  • Try to provide insight into how complaining influences the energy of the team embers from other cultures.
  • Together make two lists. One of what is the benefit of complaining for each person present and one of what is the benefit of a positive approach for each person present (energy, pain, admiration) and which of those benefits serve the project or task best.
  • Create together a code of communication.
  • Make a list of desired behaviors during meetings or ground rules for the team or the office. Post them on the wall as an aid in guiding conversation towards positivity and constructive action oriented communication.