Leaders: Replace the No Whining Sign w/ This | #Leadership #PeopleSkills

In a Harvard Business Review article The No Whining Rule for Managers, Ron Ashkenas professes how to achieve managerial accountability. Yet telling those you lead to “stop whining” is a ineffective way to achieve it.

Stop whining is not just a catchy slogan. It is demeaning and degrading and can infect your organization and spread like antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Leaders, Replace the No Whining Sign Image by: DBDuo Photography, Creative Commons License

You lead adults. Categorizing their complaints as childlike whining will breed resentment. That is not what you need as a leader.

Using the phrase stop whining shows your immaturity as a leader. You are trying to ban behavior instead of leading to change it. Adult complaints are based in real barriers to success (e.g. silos, titles, etc…), not in laziness. Roll up your sleeves with those you lead and solve problems.

If you want your direct reports to engage in substantive problem solving communication, then, show them by doing it yourself. Instead of saying “stop whining …”, state what you do want. Leaders don’t make people guess what they want. They tell them, show them, and help clear the obstacles to getting there.

Above all, realize that the phrase, stop whining, is itself a whine! It is a complaint about what you don’t like disguised as an order. If you don’t want those you lead to “whine”, then don’t engage in whines yourself.

Leaders, Replace the No Whining Sign!

Model the Positive to Eliminate the Negative

  • Model and model and model. The best way to teach actionable behavior is to do it!  If someone dumps a problem in your lap without any suggestions, ask them for their ideas.  If they launch into complaints, ask them how to overcome those barriers. Don’t yield. Model.

    Skip the labels.  Labels demean.  Stop whining may shame people into a short term behavior change yet it won’t breed positive can-do attitudes or develop a high performance organization.  It simply breeds compliance to a commandant leader’s orders — when the leader is around.

    It also shuts people up. They don’t want you to demean them so they stop communicating.  This avoidance reduces productivity – the exact opposite of accountability and performance.  I have seen it repeatedly in response to leaders whose favorite phrases begin with the words stop or no.

    Even with children, you see quicker success when you show them what you want them to do vs. what you don’t want them to do.

  • Create a culture of positive action by showing managers how well it works. How leaders treat their managers is how the managers treat the staff.  If you want the whole organization to replace complaining with problem solving and innovating, replace your no whining rule with your non-whining communication.  They will then model it with their direct reports.

    Ask yourself: Do you really want an entire organization issuing stop orders? Or would you prefer they engage in behaviors that create success?

  • Free yourself from the trap of the should. Do you find yourself thinking, “these are high level managers. They should already have good skills.” Be careful. This thinking makes you replace the reality (managers’ lack of skills) with another label for the behavior (e.g. childlike, lazy, whiner).

    Meanwhile the reality is that many managers are promoted by being good staff members. They were highly responsible for their own work.  They weren’t facilitating solutions across organizational boundaries. Unless you witnessed stellar management skills in them as staff members which suddenly disappeared when they became managers, the issue is skill level not laziness.

    So free yourself from the trap of the should.  It takes your eyes off the real target — instilling more successful behavior and better performance.

To build mature accountability, show everyone what that is. Replace the no whining sign with behavior that models success.

From my professional experience to your success
Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

Related Posts:
Make It as Easy to Innovate as to Complain
Chronic Complainers: 5 Ways Leaders Ignite Their Contributions
Leaders, 9 Chances to Cultivate Employee Maturity

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Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

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14 Responses to “Leaders: Replace the No Whining Sign w/ This | #Leadership #PeopleSkills”

  1. Joe Williams says:

    Kate – I can see how the “No Whining” rule and sign can be a tongue-in-cheek message intended to lighten an environment, yet if misused can lead to the kind of negative reinforcement that concerns you. So much of effective leadership is driven by perceptions, so being aware that a “No Whining” rule can lead to a negative outcome (i.e., what the leader doesn’t like, leading us to guess at what s/he does like as a “desired” outcome) is an important service you are providing with this post.

  2. Kate, I agree with your analysis. One thing a leader can do (instead of putting up a sign) is to help the “whiners” (without labelling them as such) to discover how they can take responsibility for the situation. Questions such as “What is your role in this situation?” or a gentle reminder when appropriate, that sometimes the best anyone can do about a situation they are complaining about is to change the way they think about it. Helping them to reframe can sometimes work in that direction.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Exactly what I mean Mary Jo. Show them or help them discover their role, how they can change the situation etc… instead of labeling them and changing little.

      Regards and thanks,

  3. Susan Mazza says:

    Love your steps for modeling the positive to replace the negative instead of a sign! A “no whining” mandate, whether on a wall poster or in your conversation, is as you point out trying to solve a complaint with a complaint.

    Behind every complain is a commitment. If we can focus ourselves as leaders on speaking and acting consistent with our commitments and help others to do the same the whining will take care of itself.

  4. Tara Alemany says:

    Enjoyed the post, Kate! I agree with Joe that you have to take the actual environment into consideration. But that your description is definitely a potential trap leaders can fall into. One company I worked for fostered fun as part of its corporate environment. The break room had a Foosball table. The CEO’s desk contained lots of toys. We had annual “desk chair Olympics,” and a variety of company-sponsored events (including going to a pinball arcade for a team-building exercise). Seeing a “no whining” sign in that kind of environment would have been taken as a jest. Seeing it in an up-tight, strictly politics setting would be disconcerting.

    For such an environment, your recommendations would definitely be useful to produce the kind of results every company desires.

  5. Jesse Stoner says:

    I agree with you, Kate. One of the dangers of “no whining” is that it can get generalized and people start thinking it means they shouldn’t talk about any problems or issues – leaders then miss out on important information. It could be seen as a fun way to stifle the people who are constantly complaining but never try to resolve issues. But a reframing from the negative to the positive would be more helpful. Instead of telling people what they should stop doing, give them a substitute for what they should be doing – like “Seek Solutions” or “Talk to me, but don’t dump on me.”

  6. Khalid says:

    You are absolutely right about your insight Kate! Loved the post and all replies also!

    I see if leaders see that people whine alot then a sign of stopping it won’t do any good! It’s like you ignore the real problem behind the whiners! Why not sit and LISTEN to such people and obviously once they are heard they will stop whining! Simple 🙂


  7. Right on, Kate. I am absolutely with you on everything you’ve written except one thing, which is that Ashkenas’s points are “rock solid.” The HBR blog sounds like it was written in 1950, as a manual for old-style hierarchy. So you see, I do have feelings about this issue, too!

    If you want to create a whole new level of “undiscussables” in an organization, including the boss’ behavior, put up a “no whining” sign. Then put up a suggestion box, too, and complain that no one ever puts any suggestions in it, proving how uncommitted your employees are. This is all just nonsense, a jail from which we all need to help each other break free.

    The point is that we are all involved in the problems that are a natural part of working together. Your suggestions for modeling are great, and I would add that if you really want to change the dynamics you bring people together to discuss those dynamics — with a facilitator if you need one — to begin to define the qualities of the workplace everybody wants and needs to do their best work, to get real together about the barriers, and design the changes in conduct person by person that bring out the best in everyone.

    In that process, it will help to ask for feedback about your own style and how you personally participate in the problems — that’s the modeling that really counts: your own vulnerability as a leader, your displayed willingness to learn, change and grow, even as you encourage others to find their own ways to grow.

    It breaks my heart that people want to force others’ maturity as if it were a simple click on a web page, rather than look to their own inner development as a challenge and heart-felt quest to find out what it means to lead.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      The way you put the “suggestion box” idea parallel with a no whining sign — you had me both laughing and crying. This happens so often and it is so sad!

      As for forcing others’ maturity like a click on a web page — there are many who do that too. And then these leaders are themselves overcome with frustration when it doesn’t work.

      I am grateful for your thoughts on this post. When I read the other post about no whining it struck a deep note and I was compelled to write this post. Guess it struck you too!

      Many many thanks,

  8. Liz Weber says:

    “No Whining” edicts alone kill discussions just as you suggest Kate. The key to really ending the whining is, as you point out, to model and develop the behaviors of reaching beyond the whine/complaint/problem to probable solution(s). That’s where your head needs to be as an effective leader: How do you get your team to the problem solving stage and not stuck in the frustration/venting stage? That’s your challenge — AND that’s your job as the leader. Teach them how to take responsibility and be accountable to help identify the solutions instead of simply venting their frustrations.

    Kudos on another great post Kate! L

  9. Brilliant observation!

  10. Great post Kate! I agree with previous comments. Reframing an issue in a positive way is much more effective and conducive to productivity and success.

    In a DON’T there’s automatically a DO. If I tell you not to think about a green apple, well guess what: you’ve just thought about…a green apple!

    Creating an environment that encourages a positive attitude usually paves the wave for constructive interactions and communication. For leaders (not bosses), walking the talk, caring for people and involving them in the solutions is definitely the better approach.

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