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Snitz explains: how to Complain at Work the Right Way and Get Ahead

Go ahead and read the story below. Waste of time. Instead, remember the four Snitz axioms:

  1. It's easier to complain when you're the boss. Be top dog.

  2. Be Jewish. We understand complaining. Really. Not kidding.

  3. Think like JFK, who famously said, "it's better to give an ulcer than get an ulcer".

  4. Forget the first two; focus on #3.

How to Complain at Work the Right Way and Get Ahead

Speaking up gracefully can impress your boss and help solve problems fast

Rachel Feintzeig, WSJ

March 27, 2023 12:00 am ET

Want to advance your career? Learn to complain well.

Stay silent and you’ll stew in resentment and let burgeoning problems fester. Speak up and you can alert leaders to hidden issues, fix the frustrating parts of your job and show you’re ready for the next step up.

Of course, you have to do it gracefully—or risk becoming the department whiner.

“You really don’t want to come in as, ‘Woe is me,’” says Dina Denham Smith, a San Francisco-area executive coach who works with clients such as DocuSign Inc. and Adobe Inc.

In recent months, she has heard from leaders frustrated by hefty workloads and head counts hollowed out by layoffs. Some managers and employees are irked by negative performance reviews they see as unfair, as companies move on from an era of gentle feedback and look for new ways to cull the ranks.

Ms. Smith advises clients to approach their bosses armed with potential solutions. Stick to the facts, and the impact the problem is having on the business. If your team is too small, what projects are suffering? What opportunities are you having to forgo because of this roadblock?

Lay out what you have tried so far to show you have taken initiative. Don’t be accusatory or gossipy. Pitch your proposed fix, but leave the door open for their input.

“Do you see other paths?” Ms. Smith recommends asking. If you rally your manager’s help in figuring out a solution, she will be more bought in and fight harder to get the change done with her higher-ups.

The words you use matter, says Jim Detert, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and author of a book about speaking up at work. He advises avoiding overly definitive statements such as, “It’s obvious we should fix this,” or “It’s so clear we have a problem,” so you don’t alienate anybody who might think it’s ambiguous.

Other triggering phrases involve frequency, for instance, “You never do this,” or “You always do that.” The person you’re complaining to will immediately focus on trying to disprove your point, Dr. Detert says.

“You lose credibility because now you’ve sort of exposed yourself as exaggerating or ignoring inconvenient data,” he says.


Start statements with “we,” not “I,” showing you’re on the same team. To link ideas, use “and” not “but.” For example, instead of saying “I know this is your baby, but we need to move on,” try, “We’ve had a great start, and I have some ideas to take it to the next level.” The listener will feel less threatened, Dr. Detert says.

Remember that fielding complaints can be exhausting for the boss, who is often bombarded daily by pleas for resources, gripes about teammates and vaguely passive-aggressive demands from the head of that other department.

“We’re your workplace, not your babysitter,” says Ted Blosser, chief executive of WorkRamp, a maker of training software. Over the past several years, he says he has dealt with employee grumbles about everything from the company’s optional holiday party to burnout in folks’ personal lives.

These days, with the mood in tech shifting, he advises managers to keep conversations with workers centered on the nine to five. Constructive complaints about the business are fine in doses, he says, recommending workers focus 90% of their communication to higher-ups on general updates and showing they are doing the work. For the remaining sliver that is griping, be positive and concise, he says, and come armed with data to show the problem you are highlighting matters.

For instance, one of Mr. Blosser’s managers scheduled a 15-minute Zoom chat with him to point out that the company’s sales pitch was weak. She tallied up customer reactions and pinpointed the exact slides that weren’t resonating, he says. She didn’t blame the marketing team for the original language that wasn’t working. Impressed with her candor and proposed solution (new slides that ended up closing sales), Mr. Blosser now goes to her when he needs advice.

In addition to impressing a higher-up, complaining well could improve your performance.

A recent study by researchers including Dr. Detert found that sales employees at an insurance company who vented to peers about problems posted a 10% decline in performance. When workers took issues to their bosses, their performance increased by up to 15%. Instead of wasting time grousing, they brought the problem to someone who could do something about it, Dr. Detert says.

Unleashing your complaints without restraint can backfire. When Matt Plummer was denied a promotion at a previous consulting job, he immediately launched into a speech about how being passed over sent a message to all high-performers at the firm. He warned there would be an exodus as a result.

“As you can imagine, it didn’t go over well,” says Mr. Plummer, now the head of Zarvana, a coaching and corporate training firm. Though he earned the promotion during a subsequent review cycle, he says, the senior leader he complained to ignored him for months.

Now, when frustrated by criticism or a project gone awry, he forces himself to pause before deciding what to share.

Adam Steel, a scientist in the Baltimore area, used his commute to a previous employer to vent to an audience of one. There, in the privacy of his car, he would rehearse his points out loud.

“I would have these kinds of fictional arguments,” he says.

The exercise got the emotion out, and he’d sometimes realize his concerns were petty or easily slapped down by counterpoints. At the office, Dr. Steel would stress-test his complaints again with a close circle of peers, gauging whether the offending issue was affecting only him.

If so, he would stand down. If not, he’d speak up to his bosses. Calmly.

“So much depends,” he says, “on how you do it.”

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at

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