This is an excerpt from my book, Tribal Alchemy: Mining Your Team’s Collective Ingenuity.  Dave Fleming, 2016.

Productive complaining has a purpose, and that purpose is alchemy. Productive complaining occurs when the complaining highlights something that is wrong in the system, something that needs to change. The issue can be frustrating and even cause tribe members to express frustration. But the difference between unproductive and productive complaining is the purpose.

Productive complaining reveals the issue in order to free a tribe from a problem through solution making. It’s kind of like productive coughing. When my sons were young and sick, the doctor would often encourage what she called “productive coughing.” The coughing gets gunk out that is slowing the healing process. Once the gunk is out, the body can go back to magic making. Though it was always hard to let them cough, in certain cases, it was exactly what needed to occur.

The word complain comes from the French word complaindre. This word literally meant to beat the breast in grief. Over time, the word became associated with the grief of physical pain. We still use the word in this manner even today. If I said to you, “I went for a run and my legs complained the entire time,” you would understand that my legs hurt during the run.

When tribe members complain, it’s likely that there is “pain” somewhere in the work or the system. As we’ve seen, some people have made a sport out of complaining. They don’t complain to locate challenges that need alchemy but rather to thwart progress or find solidarity with other serial complainers. This is not productive complaining and should be eliminated from tribal communication. Productive complainers identify challenges and then quickly initiate alchemy to address them. The speed with which tribe members move from complaining to creating alchemic solutions is another way to determine if the complaining is productive. I’m not sure we can get rid of all complaining. I’m not even sure we should. What we want to rid our tribes of is endless complaining about the same things.

Faye Crosby (1993) in a journal article entitled “Why Complain?” put it this way:

Silence without end is not acceptable. There is cause for grumbling and a need for action. Working for a better world is a task fraught with constant difficulties. The very first challenge—the one that must be met if the long, hard work of social action is to meet with success—is to assert one’s point of view honestly and without pretense. To do so requires the courage to initiate action long before one is strong enough to win a confrontation and the wisdom to sustain the action in face of a frank realization that one is annoying or inconvenient to others who are as human and as good as oneself. (p. 175)

Ingenious tribes make room for productive complaining. We have ways of describing this productive complaining that sets it apart as positive. In my work with tribes, I’ve noticed they often use the word pushback to indicate a desire to complain or challenge the prevailing idea. Too often leaders squelch complaining because either the tribe is stuck in unproductive complaining or because the leader is threatened by the mere idea that someone would be “disloyal” enough to counter or protest. Smart tribes know that productive complaining not only reveals challenges in need of alchemy but is the signal that action, or alchemy, is needed.

Again, Crosby wrote:

First, when complaining, we should remember that protest is but the first of many steps in making a better world. Actions, which may or may not be accompanied by more complaints, are integral to the meliorative enterprise. Neither at the level of interpersonal face-to-face relationships nor at the level of societal interactions is it healthful and helpful to complain chronically “without offering solutions to problems.” Complaint without action is ultimately unsatisfactory. (p. 170),

One of the significant differences between productive and unproductive complaining is delivery. Oftentimes productive complaining is delivered with an “I’ve got our back” or “heads up” approach. However, there are times that irritating people, who deliver their complaints in irritating ways, have productive insights. In this case, we have to get past the delivery in order to discern the nugget of insight. We also should do more to encourage people to diminish irritating styles of delivery. We will talk more about individual accountabilities in the “practices” section.

What’s important at this point is to understand that complaining often reveals challenge, and challenge reveals the possibility of alchemy. Second, tribes have the benefit of dealing with complaints together—if it’s productive, that is. They can attend and absorb together. Complaining must lead toward creative solutions and away from entropy.

Tribe members can more easily push through this entropy and embrace the barriers that invite ingenuity and progress—that is, if they are mindful. If tribes are mindless, then complaining is the first step toward entrenchment and entropy. This eliminates creative thinking and a desire to work for alchemy.

Tribes turn challenge into something negative when they taint the challenge with bad attitudes. Tribes turn challenge into something positive when they inspire each other to overcome. This is why the way tribes engage challenge and each other in the moment of challenge is critical—something we will explore in the process of alchemy.