How Complaints Can Direct You to Dreams

A good friend recently started a new executive assignment. She is enjoying the work, but struggling with the negative responses and stories anytime new ideas are brought up. She shared, “Shannon, this place has a memory like an elephant. People here can take a perfectly fruitful, productive conversation and torpedo it with a horror story. And, so far, it turns out that none of these stories took place within the last 10 years. How do you work with a culture that is so stuck in its historic war stories?”

As with most things executive effectiveness, it begins with where you put your attention. When it comes to excessive negativity, it’s particularly helpful to remember this change leadership tenant:

People don’t complain about things that don’t matter to them.

When someone is complaining, they are actually holding up a blinking neon sign about what they care about, about a place in the heart where purpose and concern live.

When you get to what matters to people, you have been invited into a sweet spot, if you are paying attention. That means listening in a way that doesn’t get you deeper into the details of the story, but helps you follow the emotional tidal wave to shore, where the energy to make a new start lives.

Most often, underneath all the complaining is a disappointed dream, a longing, or an unmet expectation that someone cares deeply about. Complaining happens when someone (or some team) is not in right relationship with that vision of what’s possible or what’s desired.

Dreams and purpose get very little airtime in our organizational lives.

Dreams feel risky. They often come with large doses of disappointment; and too often our capacity for disappointment – as individuals and teams – is profoundly limited. So dreams go undercover and leak out as complaining. Essentially this means that much of what passes as conflict is really someone who is sideways with her own dream.

Systems Leaders know what to do with this dynamic. They:

  • Value Complaints. They handle them like a valuable source of intelligence about their system and what makes it tick.
  • Listen for What Matters. They bring dreams to the surface by encouraging people to speak about and take responsibility for them.
  • Embrace Disappointment. They normalize mistakes and misfires, so that disappointment is transformed from something that gets people stuck to a potent part of becoming bold, visionary and heroic.

Here are two questions to help your team start shifting from complaining to dreaming:
1. What is important enough for people to put all that energy into complaining?

2. What would happen if just a fraction of that energy were going into realizing the current vision for your organization?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers in the comments section below.

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