What Are You Complaining About?

Actually, many companies are stuck in the gripe mode. Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey have a prescription for turning a culture of complaint into an agenda for change.


Tyrannical bosses. Incompetent colleagues. Pushy clients. The objects of our disaffection may vary, but griping about work is always in season — even though it’s usually a futile exercise. People spend such vast amounts of time complaining, in fact, that two Harvard researchers have come up with a name for it: “BMW mode” — short for “bitching, moaning, and whining.”


It doesn’t have to be that way, says Robert Kegan, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Lisa Laskow Lahey, research director for the school’s Change Leadership Group. The two have spent 15 years studying how people interact at more than 650 organizations, and they have found that complaints can actually be the seeds for corporate and individual transformation. Just turn the “language of complaint” into the “language of commitment,” they say in their new book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2000). In an interview, Kegan and Lahey discussed how to stop the whining — and start getting stuff done.

To understand complaints, deconstruct them.

Lahey: Behind every complaint is an idea or a belief or a value that a person is committed to. Otherwise, why be upset? A person who complains that his boss is a jerk might be committed to the idea of having a relationship with that boss that is based on respect and trust.

Kegan: And once people stop thinking of themselves as complainers — which is not an ennobling way for anyone to feel — and start thinking of themselves as people who are committed to something, that sets the stage for them to do something about their problem. That happens not by dismissing the complaint but by finding the commitment behind it.

To change the culture, take responsibility.

Lahey: Figure out what others around you — and what you yourself — are doing to thwart the goal you’re committed to. Identify to what degree you have some control of the situation. That doesn’t mean that other people aren’t responsible. It’s about recognizing that in almost every circumstance, we have some hand in why our commitment is not being realized. For example, somebody might realize that he’s never told his boss, “I don’t feel you’re taking my perspective into account. I’m not happy with the way we work together.”

To get respect, examine your commitments.

Kegan: Typically, there are good reasons why you’re not telling your boss certain things, and they have to do with competing commitments or secret fears. You want your boss’s respect, but at the same time, you’re not entirely candid because you’re afraid you’ll be seen as a troublemaker. Once you identify those fears, you enter a whole new world of learning. It’s a complex system that we call the “change immune system” — a dynamic system that is continuously producing antibodies, or resistances, to change.

Lahey: We tend to have simpler explanations about why a change initiative didn’t work, rather than why it did work. People weren’t sufficiently motivated. They weren’t genuinely committed. We didn’t bring enough people on board. The picture is often much more complex than that. It’s really about the collective effect of people’s change immune systems.


To discover the truth, question assumptions.

Kegan: These fears are driven by assumptions you have about yourself and the world around you. The problem is that we hold these assumptions as “the truth.” If someone says that he is committed to avoiding conflict with his coworkers, he might be assuming that if he had a conflict, he would feel outmaneuvered and ineffectual. But those outcomes are merely what he supposes will happen. And they prevent him from considering all of his options. If people modify their assumptions, they can let go of, or alter, the commitments they have that compete with their goals. And then they’re actually able to move forward and get something accomplished.

Contact Robert Kegan ( and Lisa Laskow Lahey ( by email.

Sidebar: Say It Again, With Feeling

Not many people would complain that they get too many genuine compliments on their work from bosses or colleagues. On the other hand, no one likes compliments that are hollow and impersonal. According to Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, not only are we stingy with our praise in the workplace, but when we do dole it out, it’s often superficial and trite. Here’s their advice for how to give praise that matters.

Be direct. Relaying a compliment through a third party may seem better than nothing, but is it going to have the desired effect? Not really. To offer a meaningful compliment, make sure you talk directly to the person you’re complimenting. Don’t say something nice about someone to his coworkers or praise him in a meeting that he’s not in. Compliments have more power when they’re delivered directly to the person, preferably in front of other people.

Be specific. Merely saying, “Hey, you did a great job in that meeting last week” may sound nice, but in practical terms, it is a fairly worthless remark. The problem is that the person you’re talking to has no idea what he did that impressed you or how he made a difference. Give as much information as you can about why you’re pleased and what effect the person’s actions have had on the larger picture.

Be professional. It’s better to tell someone how her good deeds or work affected you, rather than telling her what kind of person you think she is. You shouldn’t presume to define someone (even in a flattering light), and personal assessments are just that — personal. Instead of saying, “I appreciate what a thoughtful person you are,” try saying, “I appreciate the way you took time to fill me in on that meeting I missed.”