Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining” – Theodore Roosevelt

Among Colin Powell’s most memorable quotes is one that often comes to mind when I hear someone complaining: “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” Colin Powell knew a thing or two about soldiers complaining.

For those of us who have spent time in uniform, complaints are nothing new. Long before Seinfeld made the airing of the grievances a Festivus tradition, troops had raised complaining to an art form. In a profession where the dirty jobs can range from stirring a barrel of human excrement for hours on end to painting rocks in the motor pool in the oppressive heat of a Louisiana summer day, we hear a lot of complaints. Like Colin Powell, we learn early that when people stop complaining, something even worse is brewing.

Complaining is so common in the military that it’s celebrated in film. The big screen adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny centered around either the crew complaining about the Captain or the Captain complaining about the crew. In Patton, the Oscar-winning 1970 movie, everyone complains: the troops, the staff, and Patton himself. Early in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the troops sent out to find and return the title character launch into an orchestra of complaints that is nothing short of genius.

Needless to say, most leaders learn over time how to process, catalog, and respond to complaints. It’s a necessity. Those who don’t are relegated an existence of being forever sidetracked, constantly in pursuit of solutions to problems that may or may not exist, trapped in a bottomless time-suck from which there is no escape.

In general terms, there are four types of complaints – productive, venting, chronic, and malicious – and four varieties of complainers – aggressive, expressive, passive, and constructive.

THE Complaints

The broad spectrum that defines complaints ranges from constructive to destructive, with a few stops in between. Each type of complaint is underpinned by intent and creates its own set of effects. That drives the necessity for leaders to identify and categorize a complaint early in the cycle, both to ensure a proper response as well as to limit and downstream consequences.

1. Productive Complaints

There are times when people complain with the intent of highlighting a problem and offering a solution. This is valuable feedback that needs to be captured and operationalized, because doing so incentivizes and drives needed change.

2. Venting Complaints

This can sometimes sound like a productive complaint, but the intent is more about releasing stress and frustration than solving a problem, since these complaints typically focus on issues out of the complainer’s span of control.

3. Chronic Complaints

There is someone in every organization that will never be happy. They will raise complaints so often and so vociferously that they sap energy from those around them. Chronic complaints, like the people who present them, are intended only to draw attention to the complainer.

4. Malicious Complaints

Of all the types of complaints, these are the most damaging. The intent behind malicious complaints is purely destructive, to gain an advantage by undermining others. These complaints are often disguised as workplace gossip and are more commonly referred to as “backstabbing.”

THE ComplainERS

A similar spectrum exists for those who pose complaints. Complainers tend to mirror personality types, ranging from introverts to extroverts, which in turn determines much of how they complain. Contending with the full spectrum of complainers requires high levels of both social and emotional intelligence, as well as a lot of patience.

1. Aggressive Complainers

Aggressive complainers are extroverts who are also controlling, pragmatic, and decisive. They use their emotions to gain and hold control and can be extremely difficult to deal with. Cut right to the chase with an aggressive complainer and don’t give them the time and space to drag it out any longer than you have to.

2. Expressive Complainers

Expressive complainers are also extroverts, but they are more social by nature. With an expressive complainer, you can spend more time engaging them in dialog explaining the big picture. However, their nature may lead them to take their complaints to social media, airing their grievances in a public space. This may compel you to respond to them in similar fashion, or to at least acknowledge them in a way that leads to a more productive—and less public—discourse.

3. Passive Complainers

Passive complainers can be the most destructive complainers of all. Because they are introverts, they tend to be indirectly confrontational, meaning they will direct their complaints to everyone but you. In the process, they sow discontent unlike any other complainer and, because you are largely unaware of the complaints, you are unlikely to take any direct action to resolve them.

4. Constructive Complainers

Constructive complainers tend to be deeply introspective, a trait that derives from their natural introversion. They are organized and critical, but they are invaluable to an organization because they present productive feedback that can be acted upon decisively. You might just have to spend more time with them to tease out those complaints.

Be a Problem Solver

Whether you’re dealing with complaints or complainers, it’s essential to deal with the people and their issues as quickly and decisively as possible. Bad news isn’t fine wine; it doesn’t age well. The longer you allow unresolved complaints to fester and the people who present them free rein, the more untenable your situation will become. As Colin Powell so aptly noted, “Leadership is about solving problems.”

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.