Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Wednesday, 23 June 2010 15:48 UK

How not to complain about colleagues

General McChrystal may have sparked a diplomatic spat with his off-guard comments about senior government figures - but at its heart is a story about an employee slagging off his superiors and colleagues. Is that really such a bad thing?

"Oh, not another e-mail from X... I don't even want to open it."
"Here's one that covers his flank for the history books."
"I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this [work] dinner."

General McChrystal
And another thing...

Sound familiar? The sentiments behind these complaints surely will, even if few of us grumble about senior diplomats, foreign dignitaries and officials in the Obama administration, as the top US military commander in Afghanistan has done.

But there is a difference between complaining in the canteen, and going public - very public, in General Stanley McChrystal's case. After his excessive candour about his colleagues in a magazine interview, the boss - the President of the United States - has summoned him back to Washington DC to explain himself.

"What General McChrystal was saying to Rolling Stone was the kind of thing any worker might say - he just said it to a journalist," says occupational psychologist Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University Management School.

And bosses generally prefer not to be blind-sided by complaints made to a third party. In management culture today, much is made of openness, communication and concepts such as 360-degree feedback, where staff are assessed by those above, next to and below them in the hierarchy.

Yet despite assurances that the boss's door is always open, employees may feel uncomfortable about challenging management diktat or raising concerns about a colleague. They are more likely to grumble to fellow underlings and take it no further.

Whispering workers
Bosses like solutions, they don't like whingers
Cary Cooper

"About 90% of people who have a problem in the workplace will not approach their manager about it. This is because of the current level of job insecurity, but in good times, it's because they are looking for a promotion," says Professor Cooper.

Unless, somehow, their frustrations make it back to those in charge, outside of the established channels. A survey last month found that 40% of employees use social media to complain about their workplace, and one in five to take a pop at the boss. Many forget that their profile is public, or that their manager is among their online friends or followers, and so can read every word.

"The reason they do this is that they are frustrated and angry, and think they are airing their grievances in a closed system - only it's not a closed system. It could lead to you losing your job," says Professor Cooper.

For such criticisms to be made public risks a loss of face, and in a hierarchical system the proper channels hold powerful sway.

John Terry at his press conference
One way to raise concerns...

After England's lacklustre start to the World Cup, footballer John Terry outlined his concerns about the manager's approach - not to Fabio Capello himself, but in a press conference. The lack of support from other players was deafening in its silence, and Capello said although he was happy to hear opposing views from his subordinates, these should be made in person and in private.

So, having screwed up the courage to walk through that always-open door, how best to rely your concerns to the boss?

"Pick your time and make it constructive criticism," advises Professor Cooper. "Make sure he or she is not stressed. Be specific, constructive and non-emotional. Go in with a possible solution to the problem. Bosses like solutions, they don't like whingers."

In the military, even higher value is placed on the hierarchy and the regulation of dissent, because the consequences are far more serious than sporting defeat to a World Cup minnow.

Throughout history, soldiers have suffered after being too free with their complaints.

From left, US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, and US General McChrystal
General McChrystal with two of the leading officials he criticised

Some of Alexander the Great's officers were unhappy when their leader began to adopt enemy customs - like proskynesis, or bowing down to the king - as the army conquered the Persian Empire.

But one officer, Cleitus the Black, took his complaints too far. Annoyed at being appointed to a marginal command, he badgered Alexander in front of other officers at a drunken banquet. Fellow officers warned him to be silent, but he refused and an incensed Alexander killed him with a spear.

An incident worth keeping in mind next time the boss canvasses opinion in the office... or at a work party.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've just last week fired an employee for bad mouthing myself and my colleague to a group of student interns. It was a shock, as I had just spoken to him about a promotion and he had a very promising future with the company - or so I thought. Though I understand employees can get frustrated with their bosses, it truly hurt that this individual was so vicious and underhanded in his criticism, as he had just been offered an opportunity to air any concerns at his six-month review. Lesson learned on both sides, I hope.
Sam Harris, Boston, MA

Some years ago a colleague complained about our airline in a public chat-room. A flight attendant from a different line copied and pasted the things he said and send it to the company. He was fired the next day. You can never be sure that you're anonymous or that the things you say will stay private.
Ariadna Rodriguez, Frankfurt, Germany

Having been on both sides of the fence, manager and subordinate, I know how tough it is to take criticism and to give it constructively. In either circumstance the easiest way seems to be to take emotion out of the equation, always try to put a positive slant on things. Listening skills and feedback skills tend only to be trained into managers, but maybe if it was something employees across the board were to learn, they may feel more confident approaching their boss. Now I am the subordinate though, I realise that sometimes you have to be very aware of the politics of your workplace and play it accordingly because there every manager has a different style and for some, it's their way or no way.
Jill, Winsford

1. Everyone has a boss, be it a shift lead, head master, supervisor, department chair, CEO, Board of Directors or the voting public.
2. Your job (regardless of the job description) is to make your boss look good.
3. Get that clear and you are on your way to a happy and productive work life.
4. If you can't do it find a job where you can.
Sue Shaw, Seattle, WA, US

I have too been the manager and the managed, however any boss worth his job will be aware of the working environment, any relationships and culture. They need to be aware of the situation and address issues before they come to your "open door". If you approach the situation before they bring it to you, then your staff will feel that you are looking out for them, thus feeling supported. Then they might be more inclined to solve problems themselves or deal with difficult situations as you have demonstrated that you understand. All you need is a little empathy for your staff.
Simon, London

I used social media as a tenant to complain about my landlord who is also my employer (local authority). I was then called in by head of dept and head of HR and am facing misconduct charges.
Deb, Cardiff

The facade of claiming to have open communication is easily achieved. "My door is always open," says my manager. Many follow this model as trend rather then a core value. What 99% of managers lack is the ability to create an environment where people below them willingly come to speak to them without being told the door is always open. This is a personal trait, not a skill that can be learned.
Mike, Christchurch, New Zealand

Everyone needs to complain about their boss sometimes. Expressing negative feelings in an appropriate manner can help co-workers bond, as they have something in common, but if you are a general, and your boss is the President, don't invite a journalist with a tape recorder when you go out for drinks after work.
Ryan, Crystal Lake, IL

I have been open and honest with my opinions at work (several jobs over several years) and made constructive comments/suggestions when appropriate. They are always offered with the best of intentions. However, I can say it is never received well - by the bosses (especially men, I'm female) - and often only ensures that I will never progress. Management theory is fantastic BUT it's still just a theory. Management psychology would be more useful/appropriate.

Perhaps I'm odd or because I've been both the manager and the managed, but I find that it's better to be pro-active from the start. Usually the people doing the work are focused upon their job (which they do well) and the managers are focused upon the business, and so see the whole picture. Raising concerns soon with a solution is, in my humble opinion, the best long-term approach. Can actually be used as a reason why your boss should promote you because you're astute enough to improve the business.
Simon, Alvechurch, Worcestershire

"Bosses like solutions, they don't like whingers." What Mr Cooper is actually saying here, which is a common management refrain, is, please do all the intellectual work on solutions for me and I will take the credit, kudos and wages for doing what is essentially my job is: working with others to find solutions together, rather than trying to shut down those whose gripes may actually contain useful insight and lead to solutions.
Frank Junior, London, UK

It's not so much the criticism but the airing of opinions in public that's the issue. Any halfway competent leader encourages constructive comments, but prefers to receive them behind closed doors or at least "within the family" of the organisation.
Megan, Cheshire, UK

I'm with Megan on this. You go public if you're whistle-blowing on something big that can't be sorted out internally.
Stephen Scott, Kingston, UK

An American general, or any officer, is held to a higher standard than the typical work force member. There is a specific item in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 88, that prohibits "Contempt Toward Officials". The text is:
"Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."
Steve Roma, Westfield, NJ, USA

Is this the right time to mention the First Amendment to the US Constitution - Freedom of Speech?
Andy, Shrewsbury

"Freedom of speech" simply means that one can't be jailed, "disappeared" or prosecuted for what one says. In this regard, the general is and remains protected by our constitutional right to free speech. It does NOT mean you can't be fired or otherwise held socially or professionally accountable for making contemptible utterances. McChrystal exercised his right to speak freely. And Obama exercised his right to maintain military order.
Mike Willows, Pine Hill, NJ, US

The Freedom of Speech amendment says the US Govt cannot curtail your right to free speech. But that "your" refers to you as a private citizen, and the Government only; not you in your job, and not your employer (even if it happens to be the US Govt). Your employer has a perfect right to lay down rules. If you entering a restaurant or shop, they are perfectly entitled to lay down rules. Because none of these are the US Govt constraining you as an individual. So the unfortunate general is an employee in this context, not a citizen.
Hugo Tyson, Cambridge, UK

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