09 September 2014

Complaining the Army Way, aka Don't Gripe to the Brass

I complain a lot. Well, I take that back for modification.

I complain about the Army a lot. And even more specifically, the active duty Army. Big Army, as opposed to the Army National Guard. And while I'm clarifying and qualifying, let me add that the extent that the National Guard invites complaints is in direct proportion to the degree to which it tries to emulate Big Army.

On to the topic, then.

When a higher ranking Soldier politely accused me of simply pointing out flaws in the Army instead of trying to productively engage them, I had to reflect on that. Of course, I think my complaining is productive, because it's legitimate. Doesn't everybody?

Well, turns out, no.

To get to the bottom of it, I looked into bona fide social science. There are plenty of people and organizations who want to know why people complain (the Army isn't one of them, by the way.)

For starters, there are many types of complaints. Some whine. Others vent. The whiners and venters think they are just blowing off steam. But the irony is, Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel tells us, that we are not blowing off steam but creating it.

I might be guilty of that. But in an effort to affirm my behavior, I kept digging. 

According to Jeffrey Kassing, a communication researcher at Arizona State University, people vent because they feel helpless. In an organizational setting, this manifests as dissent. According to the literature (a really fancy terms that simply means, "a bunch of published studies"):
expressions of dissent can occur when employees combat psychological and political restraints imposed by modern organizations, when they choose to exercise freedom of speech in the workplace, or when they decide to use dissent as a means of participation.
Now here is the fascinating part (fascinating for people who get really excited by findings in journals with titles like, Management Communication Quarterly!) This dissent-- we'll call it complaining from here on out-- can be grouped into one of three types:
  1. Articulated complaints (expressing dissent directly and openly to managers)
  2. Antagonistic complaints (dissenting in an adversarial way, but with a perception of protection from reprisal)
  3. Displaced complaints
Can you guess which one this blog predominantly expresses?

Look, the reason I write is to find an audience. I am but a humble staff sergeant. I can't go to the colonel (whose main priority is to please a general) with a complaint. A lieutenant colonel can't even lodge a complaint, because the colonel used to be in Delta Force, so if you say something that upsets him, his mere glare will emit extracorporeal lithotripsic shock waves directed at your head and turn your brain to mush. For this reason, anyone O-5 and below must wait until the D-Force guy has had three cups of coffee and the Cowboys have won at least two games in a row before speaking with him, just to be on the safe side.

Me? I just write a blog. It is a safe way to express displaced dissent. The good kind of complaining. Or at least the best kind in the Army.

You see, displaced complaints are marked by,
disagreeing without confronting or challenging... It involves [complaining] to external audiences and/or to ineffectual internal audiences... [which] include nonwork friends, spouses/partners, strangers, and family members. Employees [complain] to these audiences because the risk of retailiation deminishes. (Kassing, J. 1998. "Development of the Organizational Dissent Scale," p. 192). 
Dissent serves as a corrective feedback mechanism. So I am really just trying to better the organization. And you wonderful readers are a part of that important work!

So, in the interest of telling the entire story, if dissent (complaining) is a way to provide feedback, then assent (praise) should be a regular practice, too, when appropriate. I think this blog has praised the Army quite well here, here, here, and here, for examples.

So I'm not done complaining. I'm just trying to do my military duty. 

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