Have you ever worked with someone who incessantly whined about how unfair things are, how bad, how wrong or how irrational? When people constantly whine and complain, they inhibit any chance they have for impacting the future. Their managers view them as annoying, and their direct reports and co-workers view them as inept.
In the words of the late Peter Drucker, "Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision -- not the 'right' person, or the 'smartest' person, or the 'best' person -- make peace with this fact."
As simple and obvious as this statement may seem, I am amazed at how few (otherwise intelligent) people ever deeply "get" this point. When your child comes home from school and complains, "It's not fair! The teacher gave me a 'C' and I really deserved an 'A'!" We, as parents, should say, "Welcome to the real world, kid! In life you have to accept the fact that decision-makers make decisions -- and that you are not always the decision maker." We will always have bosses, teaches, analysts or Boards who give us "grades" that we disagree with.
What can you change, and what is beyond your control?
On the surface, acceptance -- that is, changing what we can change and being realistic about what we cannot change in our lives -- should be the easiest thing to do. After all, how hard is it to resign yourself to the reality of a situation?
You assess it, take a deep breath (perhaps releasing a tiny sigh of regret), and accept it. And yet acceptance is often one of our greatest challenges. Rather than accept that their manager has authority over their work, some employees constantly fight with their bosses (a strategy that rarely ends well).
Rather than deal with the disappointment of getting passed over for a promotion, they'll whine that "It's not fair!" to anyone who'll listen (a strategy that rarely enhances their image among their peers or gets them that promotion).
Rather than take a business setback in stride, they'll hunt for scapegoats, laying blame on everyone but themselves (a strategy that rarely teaches them how to avoid future setbacks).
When enthusiasm fades, the initial cause is often failure to accept what is and get on with life.
A few years ago, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune asked me if managers today are more abusive than any time in history (a logical question in a discussion of executive behavior).
"Are you kidding me?" I said. "We still have many inequities and bad bosses, but life is much better than it was two hundred years ago. We used to have Kings, minimal worker rights, and human beings who were 'owned' and had no rights at all. In the developed world it can be bad today, but human beings are making some progress."
We've come a long way. Most major companies now believe in certain "inalienable rights" at work. We have the right to be treated with respect. We have the right to be judged by our performance and character rather than by a fluke of lucky birth. If we're women, we have the right to be paid as much as a man for doing the same job. When inequities such as these arise, they're worth arguing over. These are the battles that we should be fighting.
But a lot of small stuff remains. A colleague gets a promotion we thought we deserved. The boss showers a rival division with money, ignoring our area. We're given a hiring freeze while others get every new person they ask for. This is the stuff that still makes us howl, "It's not fair!"
Such "equity" moments resemble one another in one clear way: A decision has been made that we disagree with. What's worse, we believe that we are not getting a good explanation -- although that doesn't stop us from re-asking, which is the same as arguing over it. And when we do get another explanation, it's not good enough for us.
Arguing that "It's not fair!" doesn't change the outcome. It doesn't help our organizations or our families or ourselves. It only lowers our passion. By recognizing this classic trap, we can better determine which battles to fight -- and which ones to avoid. At work, and even more so at home, even if we succeed at winning with this whine, it's not worth the cost.
Once we make peace with the fact that the people who have the power to make the decisions always make the decisions -- and we get over whining because "life isn't fair" -- we can become more effective at influencing others, making a positive difference, and even become the person who makes the decisions!
We can fight the battles that are really worth fighting, and quit bugging the world because, "The teacher gave me a C!"
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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next short video in the series Personal Advice: Whine Less, Do More! accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015).