You know how this goes…someone complains about the same thing over and over and over again without making any real effort to change the situation
Whingeing has got to be one of the most annoying sounds a person can make. It is commonly associated with times of change…or when someone’s sense of entitlement has been punctured. It sounds like air escaping from a tyre, very slowly, and very painfully. For those who have to listen to it, whingeing creates an urge to cover your ears, walk away and go “la, la, la, la”.
What exactly is whingeing though? And is it different from just being pessimistic or critical? Whilst I do love Sandor Clegane’s (AKA the Hound) definition in the picture above, this description is lacking a little nuance. Complaining with purpose is not the same as whingeing. Tabling a potential oversight or highlighting something that doesn’t work are both completely necessary. Particularly so if these complaints are delivered in a well thought out manner and with the intention to help improve things or, even better, when they are accompanied by potential solutions. Whingeing, on the other hand, is persistent complaining about something without working towards a resolution. You know how this goes…someone complains about the same thing over and over and over again without making any real effort to change the situation. Now, you don’t have to have all the answers, but moaning for the 591st time that the “system sucks and is super slow” or that you’ve “got a useless boss” will only serve to piss off those around you. Contrary to popular belief, the constant venting won’t help you get to a better place.
Whether you are an admitted whinger, or you’re the one who’s getting whinged too, there is an antidote. This is probably my personal favourite leadership mindset model and I truly believe that adopting this mindset will not only lead to you being happier at work, but it will also lead to a happier and more fulfilling life. So, what is the antidote to whingeing? Well, before we get there let’s consider a brilliantly simple equation developed by Jack Canfield:
E + R = O (Event + Response = Outcome)
What does this mean? It means the outcome of a situation can be determined by your response, as the event is typically a constant. Let’s take the example of a terrible workplace system (the event):
Terrible workplace system + whingeing = Nothing (changes)
Terrible workplace system + proactive response = Possible change and/or acceptance
Now, on to the antidote: a proactive response, and what this looks like.
Proactive responses are above the line  responses and these are characterised by the words and phrases on the top half of the diagram below (those that are above the green line). Below the line responses (AKA, whingey responses) are more typical of the words and phrases that are shown on the bottom half of the diagram.
Let’s say you didn’t get a report completed on time and your managers ask you “why?”. What’s the whingey/below the line response?
“It’s the IT departments fault – they still haven’t fixed that damn system!” (Blame - akin to “the dog ate my homework”).
“It’s because of the bloody slow and archaic workplace system, there’s nothing I can do about that!” (Excuses, excuses, excuses…here’s a hint: the person wanting the report doesn’t care).
“I thought we’d agreed in our phone chat last week to a different date for that report because of the system issues?” (A classic Houdini misdirection move. Denial coupled with some unverifiable facts to get you out of the situation).
In contrast, what does an above the line response look like? First and foremost, above the line responses are not defensive. At all. Being above the line is displayed in how you behave and act. When you behave above the line, you look to take some level of ownership, accountability, and responsibility of the situation and involve you doing something, that’s in you control, to fix and improve things. So typically, an above the line response involves:
Identifying and explaining your role in the issue (“I didn’t plan properly for the regular system issues we have; I should have seen that one coming”).
Thinking about what should be done differently next time, and then actually doing it differently next time.
Actively working towards getting the underlying issues remedied (e.g. escalating the IT issues appropriately, coming up with ideas as effective workarounds and then sharing these with others).
Accepting that once you’ve done your part, some things are outside of your control, and not seeking to blame these factors. Instead, you move on. Quickly.
The first step is Level One above the line thinking. Level One is great for setbacks that happen to you in life or negative things you want to change. For instance, if you missed out on a promotion, an example:
Below the line response would be “they only promoted Sam because Sam is always loud and opiniated in meetings” or “they have no idea what they’re doing, how can they promote Sam over me?”.
Above the line response would be “what can I do differently to better position myself for the next promotion?” or “what can I learn from Sam to better my own performance?”.
Level Two is where the magic happens. Hopper (the evil grasshopper overlord from ‘A Bug’s Life’) is almost right when he says that as a leader “everything is your fault”. I’d prefer to say that as a leader you have ownership, responsibility and accountability for everything. Is someone underperforming? You’ve got accountability. Is someone always missing deadlines? You’ve got responsibility. Is someone on your team focusing on the wrong things? You’ve got to own it.
How is that the case?
If someone in your team is not performing as you’d like them too, it’s not necessarily all your fault…but, as a leader, you need to be doing everything in your power and control to remedy the situation. Have you given them regular timely feedback? Have you provided coaching and support? Have you given them clarity and focus? Have you made an effort to get a deeper understanding of the issues? Do they understand where they are going off track? If you can confidently say you’ve done everything in your control to help get things back on track, then you’ve responded above the line. The individual also has an onus to step up and be above the line too.
You’ll need powerful questions and a keen eye to consistently pounce on whingeing when it happens.
Level Three is where things turn really cosmic and amazing. Level Three is when you coach others to start responding and thinking above the line. This isn’t necessarily going to be easy. You’ll need powerful questions and a keen eye to consistently seize on whingeing when it happens.
Whinge: “Sorry I’m late, I got stuck in traffic?”
Pounce on those excuses and ask: “What can you do differently to arrive on time?”.
Whinge: “Sam didn’t provide me with the information I needed so it may not be accurate”.
Don’t let them get away with blaming Sam! Ask “Where else can you get that information from? Or “How can you work with Sam to get the information you need on time in future?”
Whinge: “I didn’t get the report through to you on time as I was too busy with other things”
Certainly, a bit of a quandary but all hope should not be lost! Ask “What can you do differently in future to honour key commitments you make?”, or “What changes can you make so that report deadlines are better prioritised and not missed in future?”.
So, what do whingers get? Nothing. But by owning our responses and being above the line we get progress and growth.
Take a 4-week leadership challenge to ask more powerful questions and help whingers to change their ways!
 I think Carolyn Taylor came up with this excellent model, but I don’t know for sure. Please let me know if someone else if the originator!