Amy Fish is the ombudsman at Concordia University and the author of I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need.
When someone experiences an injustice, and does nothing about it, my heart breaks a little. Even if the injustice is small, like getting brown lettuce on your turkey sub, I believe you should speak up and correct the situation for crunchy iceberg eaters everywhere.
Why do people stay silent in the face of unfairness?
First, I think anti-complaint rhetoric has been successful in shutting us up. There are memes about “living a complaint-free life” or “letting go of complaining.” Nothing drives me crazier. A complaint-free life is a life of people who say nothing even when things are unfair. Who wants to accept mediocrity? Not me. I would argue that we, as civic citizens, have a responsibility to speak up, not only for ourselves but for everyone in line behind us.
Second, some people are afraid to complain because they don’t want to make waves. They don’t want to be perceived as “difficult” or “needy.” Well, guess what? It’s okay to have needs. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to want things to be different from they are, it’s all right to be mildly dissatisfied with the status quo. With one caveat: You have to be willing to effect change.
You can ask for what you want nicely, so that you get what you want without cracking too many eggs along the way or without ruffling too many feathers. Yes, two chicken analogies, but standing up for yourself is the exact opposite of being a chicken. Interesting.
I just read about a British study of chartered accountants that finds accountants – in fact, most working adults – spend a lot of time (ineffectively) complaining. In an average week, most professional working adults will spend 31 minutes a week venting unproductively (their stats, my words) about their boss and two hours and 45 minutes a week doing the same about their job in general. At first glance, it might appear that these people need little assistance complaining, as they are spending so much time doing it.
Closer examination indicates that while seven out of 10 of these people have whinged about their problems to co-workers, domestic partners and/or other family members, the article says 46 per cent of those who reported complaining did nothing about their problems and hoped they would go away.
The best way to make a problem go away, in my opinion, is to address it with a well-researched, carefully formed complaint. The worst way to make a complaint go away is to shut your eyes and hope the moment passes. That only works for motion sickness and monsters under the bed. Complaints must be addressed head on.
Let’s get back to the miserable accountants in the study. If you see yourself here, you have a few options. You can make a list of everything that upsets you about your boss and your workplace. You can then prioritize the list and understand what resolution you would like. If it were me, I might include my ideal solutions along with outcomes that may not be my first choice but would be tolerable given the circumstances. You can practise what you are going to say, select an ideal time to discuss this with your employer and think about possible opportunities to follow up after this first encounter. You can also understand that some problems may not be fixable in this one conversation (e.g., if you are unhappy with the location of the head office, it’s unlikely that the entire company will relocate based on one person’s personal preference, no matter how justified it may be). It’s up to you to decide what you are prepared to live with – and what would cause you to walk away and try your luck somewhere else.
Here’s what I don’t want you to do: Please, don’t spend more than three hours a week moaning about your workplace, yet doing absolutely nothing to improve your situation. Because then my heart would break a little. And who would fight for the rights of green lettuce?
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