“So then the idiot sent an email to everyone, talking about how plastered I got at the party and how they practically had to sweep me up when it was over…”
As we waited to take off, I couldn’t tell whether the passenger next to me was complaining or boasting. But as the plane idled and the mobile conversation dragged on, it became clear that he felt himself to be the very aggrieved party.
“I mean, everyone was stonking – not just me! Marina was practically legless, too…”
Had I been sitting next to an undergraduate, I might have tuned out. But I was in business class, sitting next to a well-healed executive whose exploits were clearly audible to everyone in the cabin.
I heard enough to know which company he worked for, what his job was and who his boss was. By a not-very-remarkable coincidence, I recognised his company (it’s publicly trading) and some of the senior executives in it. Nothing I heard made me think well of anyone.
I’m the first to admit to congenital earwigging, but even I am horrified by how easy mobile phones have made it to learn more than anyone ever wanted to know about another’s private or professional life.
I don’t know whether mobiles have brought out the exhibitionism latent in all of us, or whether we’ve just not mastered the art of speaking quietly. But I do know that conversations like this can spell disaster.
And they’re not unusual.
A month earlier, sitting in the executive lounge of an American airport, I heard an hour-long tirade by an employee against his boss and his company. How, I wondered, could he not be aware of the people around him? What led him to imagine that his conversation was confidential? The prominent display of his Oracle luggage tag only made matters worse.
These over-hearings bothered me for two reasons: the first was that neither of the complainers were remotely aware that they could be heard. This is a mistake. It’s a lot safer, when talking in public places, to imagine everything can be heard and to speak accordingly. If the conversation is confidential or contains competitive information, save it for a private space. You don’t know who’s listening – or why.
The second reason being that, however self-righteous the speakers felt, the virulence of their indignation made them both look bad. The more aggrieved they felt, the less sympathy they received from their unintended audiences.
And this is a general, if little understood, truth about complaining: self-justifying whingeing usually backfires. Making your organisation look bad doesn’t make you look good – just indiscreet and unprofessional.
Last week, I met a professor from a major university whose work I was interested in. “How’s the university doing?” I asked. His litany of complaint exceeded an hour. All I thought at the end was: “I’m glad he’s not on my team”.
It’s very easy, when frustrated or annoyed at work, to decry the bosses and lambast the management. Everyone needs to do it sometimes. But when you next feel the need to vent, here’s a suggestion: do it in private with old friends (and preferably not colleagues) whom you trust. Get it out of your system, but do so in a safe place.
Then, just as an exercise, imagine your boss is right. Maybe you did get too drunk at the office party. Maybe your sales technique could do with more listening and less talking. If you work from the assumption that you might be in the wrong, you might find there’s something you can do to make your own work better.
Even if your boss is an idiot, isn’t improving your own performance worth some effort?
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