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Cultivating Fine Whines: Listening to the Team

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 4, 2022

It is not uncommon to hear phrases such as “No whining,” in the workplace. Many workplaces post signage conveying this message, viewing it as a humorous means to create a positive organizational culture. The underlying theme is that rather than raise a concern which others might consider annoyingly trivial or irrelevant, employees should remain quiet, avoiding annoying others and going along with the flow. While some support this view, it can be disastrous to the development of functional workplace teams, the motivation and morale of individual employees and the quality of services we provide to the community. In reality, like those working a vineyard, perhaps we should be cultivating “fine whines” with pride.

To appreciate this, we need to define “whining.” It is often viewed as a metaphor, as in an employee’s constant whining is as irritating as the whining sound of mosquitos swarming nearby. Whining is often viewed as unpleasant—something we wish could end quickly. However, it might be advantageous for all if we considered whining in the context of individual values. Every individual brings unique and differing values to the workplace based on their own perceptions, talents, characteristics and experiences. The most effective team leaders recognize this, seeking to leverage the strengths of everyone on the team, creating a synergistic effect. The reality is those viewed as “whiners” are speaking of a concern which to them is important, but which you place little value on. When someone is told to stop whining, they are effectively being told to ignore their individual values. As a result, they may emotionally disengage, withholding potentially useful perspectives and insights which might be mined to improve service quantity, quality or responsiveness.

Teams can become complacent and parochial, content with continuing long-standing practices. They may pay only lip service to continuous process improvement or the benchmarking of best practices from others. When team members use the phrase, “Stop whining,” the not-so-hidden message is often that this is the way the team has always done it, and no other way would be as effective or efficient. They are rejecting the opportunity to reflect on whether their practices are the most appropriate or if there might be means to improve their work if only incrementally. Frequently, given they are closed to any outside perspectives, they have no evidence that their approach is best. It is an assumption based on a collective sense of identity between long-term employees who are “in sync.”

Some leader-managers support this approach because they seek to ensure their team is the best. However, it is important to recognize it is not “your” team but “the team.” Referring to it as your team suggests some sense of personal ownership—some sense you are in control over all decisions, as if the team members were resources for you to use and not partners in the process. If this is so, you might reflect upon whether this is truly a team led by a leader as opposed to a work group overseen by a manager. Modern leadership is more about creating a shared vision and partnering with members of the team and other teams to meet or exceed agency objectives. Leadership and management are both critical to organizational success, but if you truly seek a high performing team environment, you must remain open to all voices on the team, even if they are speaking of concerns not immediately aligned with your personal values.

Management is important in completing objectives effectively and efficiently, but if you are managing a work group the only safe presumption is that employees will comply with existing policies, practices and directives. You have no right to expect them to become emotionally engaged with the work, seeking potential quality improvements of any kind. This is not a failure of the employee, but the failure of a leader-manager to create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. It is we as leaders who must ensure we do not inadvertently create an environment where these types of discussions cannot occur.

What does the public expect of us? Services delivered in the most effective, efficient and responsive manner. Services which best meet the evolving needs and expectations of the diverse communities we serve, crafted within the existing political, economic, social and technological environments in which we exist. To achieve this, we need to consider differing perspectives and recommendations on a continuous basis. To achieve this, we need each team member fully engaged. When they raise questions or concerns, do not dismiss it as whining. Instead, reflect on it honestly. This provides you the opportunity to validate your current practices or to make incremental improvements. This may only be achieved if we are open to questions, to dialogue and to constructive criticism from inside and outside the organization. To achieve this, we must not stifle the voices of anyone. Instead of shutting employees down, we should enable critical thought and creativity. We should be cultivating “fine whines,” making our lives, the lives of our employees, our agencies and our communities all the richer.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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