I was with a client this week who was telling me they need to inform their staff about ‘New Age discrimination legislation’.  This was a new one on me.  I panicked about whether all the terrible things I’ve said in this column about crystal healers and Feng Shui consultants will in future lead to me getting my collar felt.  But I had misunderstood: she was talking about ‘new’, as in recent, age discrimination legislation.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if my misunderstanding were to come true.  I’m not convinced it’s right to turn down someone for a job just because they’re called Verbena and demand an extra desk for their spirit guide.  But do we need legislation?  The regular tabloid frothing about ‘political correctness gone mad’ distorts a positive truth about the English: we are, in general, highly tolerant of individual differences.  I was reminded of this when reading the new book Watching the English, an anthropological study of ‘Englishness’.  But before we pat ourselves on the back, the book also highlights a less attractive cultural feature much in evidence in the workplace: our love of moaning.

I haven’t seen any official statistics regarding the number of days British industry loses through whingeing, but I bet it dwarfs even the common cold.  The problem is one of addiction: it seems that many children start whingeing at an early age through peer pressure and the bad example of their parents.  To make things worse, many office workers are ‘social whingers’ – they don’t tend to whinge alone, but if they’re in a group and one of them starts to complain, they feel they should join in.  As a result, many people can’t really get going until they’ve had their first moan of the day. 

We should be concerned about the addiction to bellyaching in the workplace for two reasons.  First, as with many drugs, one’s tolerance increases over time.  In other words, after a while it’s no longer satisfying to carp about the poor selection of sandwiches in the canteen; now the craving can only be satiated by unfiltered ranting about how management doesn’t really care about anybody.  Secondly, there is the clear danger of ‘passive whingeing’ – the effect on those around the whinger, who over time will still suffer a steady decline in motivation.

The knee-jerk response to this problem would be either legislation or education. The former approach would mean enforcing moanless workplaces, with workers having to go out into the street if they want to whinge.  The education option would require all whingers to attend a Positive Thinking seminar which asks them to accept:  (a) that life is wonderful (which it clearly isn’t) (b) that they are creative and resourceful human beings (what, with my thyroid?) and (c) that their boss values and respects them (look out for that flying pig….).  Well, we know that prohibition doesn’t work; and as for positive thinking – well, anyone can tell you it isn’t half as much fun as having a good old rant.  So what’s the solution?

There is an established creative thinking approach called the ‘reversal’ technique.  You take something which is useless and ask: what if this were useful?  It’s the secret behind the invention of, among other things, Velcro, Viagra and the Post-It note.  Could we not use this approach to deal with whingeing? Now, the first positive thing you can say about negative thinking is that it seems to energise people.  If I ask a group of workshop participants to write down what they’re good at, I get a lot of furrowed brows and embarrassed glances around the room.  But if I ask for a list of what they’re useless at, the room comes to life and most people ask for a second sheet of paper. 

In the same way, a lot of people find creativity hard because classic brainstorming guidelines ban you from being negative.  Like all rules, it was made for a good reason – a critical atmosphere tends to deter people from contributing.  But if it’s human nature to be negative, why not use it productively? Instead of brainstorming ways to increase motivation in the business, for example, ask the team for ideas on how to demotivate staff – you’ll get four times as many ideas, probably three-quarters of which can be ‘reversed’ into potential solutions.  And, strangely, there’ll probably be more laughter in the room. 

Like the wind, the whinge is a potentially destructive force - but if we can capture it, it can bring energy for the good of others.  Right, now I’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you how typing this article has played havoc with my RSI.  Oh – apparently I’ve run out of words.  That’s typical…

© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.

A version of this article originally appeared in Business Life magazine