people don’t moan unless they own

A Christian leader I once worked with was fond of saying, ‘People don’t moan unless they own’.

I guess it was his way of highlighting the reality that grumbling and complaining aren’t necessarily the opposite of ‘buy in’. They could actually be indicators of it!

So if a group of people you’re part of start vocalising dissatisfaction about how they’re pursuing their shared goals (or questioning what those goals should be), it doesn’t automatically mean they want to give up. In fact, it may speak volumes about how safe they feel to be able to articulate their dissatisfaction in the first place.

Some writers on leadership would call this evidence of an ‘adaptive challenge’.

An ‘adaptive’ challenge, according to Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky — the author’s of ‘Managing Yourself: A Survival Guide for Leaders’ (Harvard Business Review, June 2002) — is one that can’t be fixed with a purely technical solution.

Think of a car that needs to be repaired over and over again because of the way it’s being driven (rather than a design fault). Tackling this problem is an adaptive challenge — it requires changes that run to the springs of human behaviour: our values, motives, and affections.

I find this all massively liberating as well as thoroughly challenging.

It’s liberating because until now I think I’ve been tempted to view low-level, repeated complaining as something to be overcome.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing that needs to be done about whatever people might be moaning about. What I am saying is that the moaning itself need not be discouraging.

What’s challenging is that while it may offer a brilliant diagnosis (I was already inclined to find ‘systems’ approaches like this one thoroughly compelling), knowing how to apply it is a whole different thing — something, no doubt, for a future blog post!

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