The Joys and Perils of Whining at Work

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People who complain at work all the time can be annoying. But people who never complain at all are downright spooky. Finding a balance for your workplace complaints is one key to professional happiness. Lucy Kellaway, the workplace columnist at the Financial Times, talks with Renee Montagne about whining at work.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesday, the business segment looks at the workplace. Today we focus on whining at work.

For many it's a guilty pleasure: an excuse to not work, a way to bond with colleagues. As to how to get the most out of your moan - and that's what they call it in the UK, moaning - we turn to Lucy Kellaway who's written on just this very subject in The Financial Times.

Hello.

Ms. LUCY KELLAWAY (Columnist, The Financial Times): Hello.

MONTAGNE: One thing you write is that whining is not so bad.

Ms. KELLAWAY: No, I think whining is great. The trick, though, is to getting it right. A little bit of whining is like having salt in your food. It helps your taste the rest of the day, really.

MONTAGNE: Well, a little bit, I believe, would be the operative word, right? On whining and moaning?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we all know those people who just moan the whole day. And for me, those are the most toxic people altogether. They're worse than the sort of backstabbers and the political animals and, you know, the people who just ohhh God, ohhh, like that all day, they make you lose the will to live.

MONTAGNE: So, in your column, you offered a few rules. But before we get to the rules, why don't you describe or maybe even live through a good whine.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah, okay. Let me give you a good example. Suppose you're sitting at your desk, minding your own business, and you receive an e-mail from the management about something like business expenses. And you start reading through it and it's incredibly petty. There's all this stuff about how, if you even take one bus ride for 50p you've got to give a written receipt for it. And then you turn around to the person who's sitting next to you and you say, oh, my God, have you just seen this memo? Isn't it pathetic? And then you all roll your eyes, and you maybe start sending it up and laughing, and saying things like, God, isn't it typical of this place?

And by doing that, it kind of makes you put this stupid e-mail in perspective. It makes you feel that you're bigger than it. And that can be great.

MONTAGNE: So that's the sort of positive effect, if you will, of whining. But there are rules, right? And you've got some of them. Why don't you start rattling them off to us?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah. Now, the first rule is quantity. This is absolutely key. You must not moan too much, but you mustn't moan too little either.

I don't know if you've worked with people who don't moan at all. I can think of a couple of people who don't do that, and I find them really spooky. There's a sort of weird Pollyanna-ishness about them. That means that I don't trust them an inch. So rule number one is to get some moaning in every single day.

From my point of view, I've kind of thought about it, and I think between two to five percent of every working day should be spent moaning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Another thing to get right is who you do your moaning to. Now this is…

MONTAGNE: Oh, right.

Ms. KELLAWAY: …really important. Um, unless you're a complete idiot, you don't do your moaning to your boss. Only moan to your boss if you've got a practical solution. So, you know, this isn't working out and I suggest this - but that, I wouldn't even call that moaning.

So don't moan to your boss. Even more essentially important is, don't moan to your underlings.

MONTAGNE: I was just going to ask that. And what about if the boss is the moaner and you're the moanee?

Ms. KELLAWAY: Yeah, exactly. If the boss is the moaner, imagine how that goes down, you know? He or she will be paid miles more than you are and they have more control. So, if they're moaning, I mean frankly you just don't want to hear it. So, a bad idea.

Um, what I think is great is to pick on someone who's roughly at the same level as you in the hierarchy, for a mutual moan. Now, a mutual moan is very pleasurable. That can be really, really great. So you moan, and they moan back. Very good.

MONTAGNE: Lucy, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. KELLAWAY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Lucy Kellaway is the workplace columnist for The Financial Times, and she's also the author of Who Moved my BlackBerry?

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