People bitch. Like, all the time. It’s 8:35am on a Friday and I’ve already bitched twice: once about the weather and another time about the power flickering on and off.
At work, Frank bitches as a last resort, when all else has failed, so I know to pay careful attention. Matt bitches all the time and I’ve adjusted to the noise. Angela bitches for sport, and, well, that’s kind’a fun.
Bitching is part of the gig, and while I’m going to describe it in a seemingly lighthearted fashion, your job as a leader is to develop a filter to sift through all the noise so you can identify the signal and then bucket it as Friction, Pain, or Failure.
A 1:1 aside: If you’ve read my piece on 1:1s, you’ll notice how Friction, Pain, and Failure map nicely into Updates, Vents, and Disasters. As it turns out, bitching is a healthy function of a good 1:1, which means these two articles pair well together.
I measure the least complicated form of bitching as Friction, and the best way to start to understand it is to see how it’s different from regular conversation. Let’s watch:
Bob: “… so I pulled the latest and rebuilt to see what was going on and it looked fine. So now I’m wondering, did I screw up? And this is what really gets me…”
Stop. It’s hard to discern in text when the bitching began, but in this completely fabricated example I stopped when Bob started bitching. What changed? The bitching began when Bob was no longer casually observing the universe and was suddenly part of it. You know what really gets me…?
At its core, bitching is personal… I feel… I think… You know what I think…? It’s personal and often intense observation of the world. It’s not casual conversation anymore because it suddenly has a sliver of emotion that was not previously there. This is the first step in bitch triage.
There is a single question to ask with regard to Friction: listen or act?
The simple act of listening to someone bitch is often all you need to do. It’s not what you should always do, but there are times when all that your people need to do is take the unorganized mess of feelings and thoughts in their heads, organize them, and express them out loud. This simple act of creation gives these people satisfaction. The thought is now real because it exists outside of their heads. Talking about it makes it real.
Choosing to listen is a move that often confuses new leads because when they detect Friction, when they discern that something is personal and off, they instinctively and correctly think, “Act” and therein lies the art: When do you act?
Ask the following;
- What is the discernible and measurable impact of this bitching? Can I see the problem and discern the magnitude from my perspective? No? Keep asking questions. If I can’t find a measure, perhaps it’s just a feeling. If it’s not concrete, it makes it harder to prioritize, but its emotional wispiness doesn’t mean it’s less important. It remains signal and an early warning.
- Have I heard this bitching before, and did I act then? You did? Ok, why is it back? Has it amplified? Is there new data? If you didn’t act last time, why not?
- Still stumped? If, after some lightweight investigating, you’re still not clear if it’s time to act, your go-to move is asking: “Should I act?” You’re likely wondering why this no-brainer advice isn’t your first move. Remember, bitching is not currently about you; it’s about this other person getting their sometimes unorganized thoughts out of their head, and doing so is an act of trust on their part. If each time they bitch you jump in and ask, “Should I act?” they’re going to think you’re more interested in blindly acting than listening.
There’s a bitching paradox here. Your instinct will be to take action, but here’s the issue: if you react to all Friction, that’s all you’re going to do all day because people bitch all the time. It’s one of the ways they process the world. However, Friction ignored and unmaintained escalates. It can eventually become Pain, and then consequences will become obvious.
Pain and Failure
The two levels above Friction are more similar than different. At both levels the answer to the question “Do I act?” is a resounding “Yes.” The major variable is time to act. Pain hurts. There is significant impact and Failure will appear imminently.
Now there are people who modulate their Friction as Pain. The emotions and the words are the same, so it sounds like Pain, but as you triage with them, it is their perception of the Pain that is critical, not the actual situation. The discussion is: “How do we agree this is Friction delivered Painfully?” Pain, like Friction, starts with an acknowledgment: “You are not alone here. I hear your Pain, but I need to understand it.”
In my experience, if the other party can’t engage in an effective triage of the Pain, if they aren’t willing to deconstruct and understand it, this might still be Pain, but it could also be a Rant. As I wrote here:
The Vent that wants no help is a Rant. The Ranter somehow believes that the endless restatement of their opinion is the solution. Perhaps they have no clue what a solution might be or how to find it or perhaps they’ve been stewing on the topic so long, they’ve lost all sight of logic.
Whatever the backstory, the Ranter is finding some weird mental satisfaction in the endless restatement of the problem, but they have no interest in solving the actual problem at this point. Annoying. When you’ve got a confirmed Rant on your hands, it’s ok to jump into the middle of the Vent — you’re saving everyone a pile of time and you’re teaching the Ranter that the incessant restatement of the Rant is not progress.
Unlike Friction, the impact of ignoring actual Pain will be discovered quickly. Whether it’s poorly modulated Pain or not, action is required lest it become Failure, and my advice for Failure is simple.
Stop. Why are you reading this? Go deal with your disaster. Failure means irreversible negative impact. Failure is crippling and shocking and you will be judged by the urgency with which you lead your team through this disaster. Go. Now. Time is critical. Don’t overthink it. Act.
It’s Not Bitching
Bitching can be intoxicating because it’s usually conveyed urgently, poetically, and passionately. As a leader, listening to, digesting, and triaging bitching is an essential part of the job. Your role, whether it’s Friction, Pain, or Failure, is the same: remaining the levelheaded voice of reason.
Part of you might want to join in the bitching, especially if the topic is of particular interest to you, but don’t. Joining in the bitching might feel like the friendly natural course of action, but you’re not helping – you’re making it someone else’s problem. Joining in is amplification and amplification is just louder bitching.
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