Flipping Complaints to Commitments (Jedi Leadership Tricks)

As you spend more time watching how you interact with others, you may notice something about your conversations.

Specifically, that you bitch and moan about things that bother you. Maybe not every minute, but probably a few times a day.

What’s the problem with bitching and moaning? After all, everybody does it.

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flip pancakes

Three things:

  1. You feel lousy. Maybe not at first, but within a few minutes, kind of like eating french fries with ice cream—something I loved doing after high school soccer games at Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
  2. People see you differently. It’s the weirdest thing: even though we all complain, when we hear somebody else doing it, we quickly make a judgment about them. You can lose credibility that you worked so hard to build up.
  3. It dampens the mood of your team. When people hear you making negative comments, it affects their emotional state. This is because, as brain science teaches us, our nervous systems are intertwined. Your periodic complaints about, say, how IT or HR let you down, can shift others into moods of resignation, resentment, or fear.

The good news is that you can turn this around. Literally flip something negative into something positive.

Once you learn how, it’s pretty easy to do. And you’ll find the result to be far better than the alternatives. Usually we either take pride in our complaints (the great tradition of “venting”) or stuff them away. As you know, there is no “away.” Just like frozen pipes or overheated glass, our complaints can burst or shatter.

That’s what makes flipping complaints so effective. We look inside them for evidence of what matters most to us. All that negative energy neither spreads nor goes underground. Instead, we transform it into something positive.

Kudos to Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey for this trick. As they say, behind every complaint is something you are committed to. Watch the complaint closely, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what you care about.

So here’s how you do it:

  1. Pay attention to what you’re complaining about. A coworker? Your boss? A direct report who seems out to get you? How dreadfully slowly things change in your organization—or how painfully fast? Whatever it is, write it down.
  1. Take a few deep breaths and feel your feet on the ground. From this relaxed place, imagine yourself climbing up to the balcony of a theater and looking down at the stage, where someone who looks like you is complaining.
  1. Ask yourself what does this person care about so much that its absence from her experience is causing her to complain? What is she committed to? Trusting relationships with coworkers? Clear expectations with her boss? Thoughtful change? Whatever it is, write it down—and make it yours. Make sure you start the sentence with, “I am committed to_____.” The words matter because they immediately position you not as a victim who complains but as a powerful person who has commitments.
  1. Say it out loud to a trusted colleague or friend at the next opportunity. This shouldn’t take long, because whatever you care about is right there, smack in the center of your work. You shouldn’t have to look hard!
  1. Pay attention to what that feels like to you and how it impacts the other person. Imagine what it would be like to build your conversations around this commitment in the future. What power would this give you?

Jedis don’t procrastinate, so I know you won’t wait until tomorrow. You’ll do this today, and probably in the next thirty minutes. Remember, the complaint doesn’t have to be something you verbalize. It can be a thought in your head.

You won’t believe how big a difference this makes until you give it a try. So start tracking what bothers you, flip it into a commitment, and enjoy the positive momentum that results.