Be a Winner not a Whiner

There is an excellent scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) tells Nigel (Stanely Tucci) that she is working hard and her boss Miranda (Meryl Streep) is being so mean to her.

“I’d just like a little credit because I am killing myself trying” she says.  To which Nigel says, “You are not trying, you are whining”.  He went on to point out the various ways that she wasn’t really trying and that she was not doing everything possible to get the results that were expected of her.  I loved it!

Devil 1b

How many of us have people around us whining all day?  How many of you have people on your teams that tell you how hard they are working or how much effort everything takes?  Nigel’s response to Andy in the movie was, “Quit!  I have a hundred girls who would kill to have your job.”  It would be easy in this economic climate for someone like me who is a natural task master to say something just like this.

On the other hand, emotional intelligence training would tell us that it is important, critical even, to be empathetic.  So the question I have for you is this, how do you balance a need to be empathetic toward people when you are results focused and have a violent reaction to whining???  In fact, I hate whining.  So what do I do when people whine?

The thing is, I have a small confession.  As much as I hate whining, it turns out I am also a bit of a complainer myself.  Perhaps it is my old age setting in but I am starting to complain about cold weather, lousy drivers, the music my kids listen to, and occasionally how hard I am working.

When I do it with my wife, it stresses her out.  She thinks I am going to have a meltdown or she is going to need to fix me somehow.  It has only been through therapy that she has learned to say – “you sound like a whiner!”  It helps.

What she challenges me to do is evaluate what it is I am trying to accomplish and to reframe my complaints in terms of specific facts and requests.  She wants me to take responsibility.

I think this same kind of model applies to others whining to us.  What are they trying to accomplish with their whining?  Do they have any intention to change or do anything different?  Are they taking personal responsibility for a solution, or are they simply complaining to complain or to generate self-pity?

The challenge for us as project managers and leaders is this – how do we balance genuine empathy with a disdain for whining?  How do we acknowledge that it can be tough but we know that people can get the job done?  How do we discern those individual on our teams who have real problems from those who have simply grown accustomed to whining?

No Whining

Consider the following balance between empathy and a results focus.  The idea of the chart is showing that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Empathy vs Results

In this framework, we could think of 4 different possible positions.

  • Vacant Lot – Those that don’t show much empathy but don’t expect much from people  are in the vacant lot camp.  They don’t really expect much to come.
  • Boot Camp – Those that are low in empathy but have high expectations for results are what I would call the boot camp mode.  Drop and give me 20 Soldier! would be an appropriate statement.
  • Day Care – Leaders that have high empathy but lack a results focus would be in the day care camp; they coddle their team members and don’t expect or get much from them.
  • Apprentice – The final category is what I woud call the apprentice model.  In this case, leaders have both high empathy and high results focus.  They are focused on developing the people around them and getting the best results from them.

I think it is possible to balance empathy with a strong results focus.  It takes incredibly good listening skills but we need to show people empathy while at the same time letting them know that we expect them to meet their deadlines for tasks and deliverables.

Being both empathetic and results oriented with people isn’t always easy, but it is the best way to encourage whiners to become winners.  Here are some action steps you can take now with your current team:

  1. Ask people what they need – When others seem to be whining or complaining to you, ask them what they need instead of trying to solve their problem.  In most cases, people are not interested in you solving their problem – they just want to be heard.
  2. Set limits – Set time limits on listening to whining.  We used a rant concept on a large IT program a few years ago.  During our weekly status meeting, each team member was given 30 seconds to rant about anything they wanted.  After the ranting, we told people they needed to move on to take ownership for a solution.
  3. Anticipate breakdowns – Help others to anticipate and avoid some of the common breakdowns or team failures.  For example, if it is winter time in Chicago, we can always expect some weather related issues in travel or even just people getting to the work location.  If we have a project that is in crunch mode, we need to have a plan that incorporates weather disruptions.  We need to communicate our expectations ahead of time whether that includes everyone taking their laptop home every night or making sure their VPN software and other tools are up to date.
  4. Grow People – Treat every day as an opportunity to coach and mentor, using the apprentice model.  Grow and develop the talent under you so that your job is easier.
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