July 3, 2008 / 1:39 PM / 10 years ago

Business Books: Making the workplace a gripe-free zone

NEW YORK, July 3 (Reuters) - Comedian Lily Tomlin once said that the human race invented language because of a deep-seated need to complain, but an increasing number of people see nothing funny about mindless griping.

In “The No Complaining Rule” (Wiley, $19.95), author and business consultant Jon Gordon uses a fictional company to illustrate how gossip, criticism and whining erode morale and productivity, while positive words and constructive actions have the opposite effect.

The premise of the book is not unfamiliar.

Will Bowen, a minister at Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, Missouri, started something of a media sensation a couple of years ago when he challenged his congregation to stop complaining for 21 straight days.

Since then, the church has given away millions of purple wristbands that people can use to help them remember not to indulge in what Bowen calls “ear pollution.” He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and NBC’s “Today Show,” and his book, “A Complaint Free World,” was published by Doubleday last fall.

“The No Complaining Rule,” on the other hand, grew out of Gordon’s previous book, “The Energy Bus.”

A client, PPR Heathcare Staffing Chief Executive Dwight Cooper, said the business fable galvanized him to implement a no-complaining rule as part of his company’s long-standing focus on the positive. He shared his experiences with Gordon, and the author decided to write about them.

The story revolves around Hope, a human resources executive who, despite her deliberately symbolic name, has plenty to complain about. Her husband has left her, she is awaiting results of tests to determine whether she has cancer, and she is locking horns with her teen-age daughter. To make matters worse, her company has lost its way, and her boss has asked her to come up with a plan to fix the corporate culture.

Hope learns about the consequences of negativity. A Gallup study estimates the cost to the U.S. economy at $250 billion to $300 billion a year, while research from the University of Michigan shows that too many negative interactions compared with positive ones can hurt a team’s productivity.

“It’s the people who drive the numbers,” Gordon said in an interview. “You need (performance) measurements, but they’re just the outcome of great leadership, great teamwork.”

To that end, Hope devises the rule: Complaining is banned unless directed to people who can do something about the problem. Even then, workers must suggest possible solutions.

Trust is essential, she tells the executive team: “Our employees must know we listen to them, hear them, care about them, and will seriously consider their ideas.”

The book has a happy ending, with circumstances improving dramatically for both Hope and her company.

And back in the real world, Cooper said the no-complaining rule and other morale-boosting measures have helped PPR thrive in an industry he describes as commoditized.

The Society for Human Resource Management has listed the Jacksonville Beach, Florida-based company among the best places to work for five straight years, he said, and its growth in the past 12 years has outstripped the sector’s by a multiple of 10. (Reporting by Lisa Von Ahn; Editing by Eddie Evans)

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