I once worked on a church staff with a person who was very educated and talented, but the staff member was undermining the entire organization. This staff member would never say anything publicly that would criticize anyone. The staff member had a very subtle way of letting everyone know of personal hangups. These hangups were affecting the staff and thus the performance of the organization.
Within organizations, this situation plays out the same way. One person groaning, criticizing, and vocalizing their personal problems with others. Often, these behaviors come from a place of insecurity. These behaviors will sink a church staff or organization. Everyone knows who these people are, but staff often, unknowingly, feed this person’s behavior.
There is that negative comment at lunch, a complaint that comes after a meeting, or an overly critical email that is sent around people’s backs. This person lets everyone know that they are unhappy with organizational decisions or have personal gripes with others without confronting the issue at hand. This type of underhanded behavior sinks staff and there is a name for it:
Recreational Complaint Syndrome
Guy Burgess, Ph.D. and Heidi Burgess, Ph.D. — Co-Directors of the Conflict Research Consortium, define Recreational Complaint Syndrome:
The common practice of gossiping with one’s friends and allies about how one’s opponents are the source of all evil, while one’s own group, of course, is the source of all virtue. The ability of many radio talk shows to exploit this phenomenon underlies both their success and the highly inaccurate images of the world that they often give to their listeners.
The issue here is that there are some within an organization who believe other staff members are opponents who somehow work against them. Thus, gossiping becomes a way, for staff members who portray an anxious presence, to release their anxiety or fears.
How can staffs discourage Recreational Complaint Syndrome?
It starts with those at the top. Leaders of organizations must set the tone of openness, accessibility, and honesty. Leaders themselves must not be an anxious presence with reactive behaviors to challenging situations. Leaders must check in with staff people and listen to their concerns. In addition, teaching organizational staffs about the art of active listening, healthy communication within the organization, and acceptable ways of handling disagreements can guard against Recreational Complaint Syndrome. Asserting one’s self in a situation of gossip is also key: “I’m sorry, I appreciate your perspective, but I can’t engage in this conversation because I don’t have all the facts.”
There is nothing like working on a staff in an organization that works well. There is a level of synergy that runs through the organization where people really feel like they are succeeding in their goals. By recognizing and guarding against Recreational Complaint Syndrome, organizational staffs can function more fluidly together.