May we suggest...

Company Culture

The ‘No Complaining’ Rule: What it Really Means to Create a Company Culture of Positivity

Recently Joel and I were talking about the new Jawbone UP3. I had just gotten one for free as part of Buffer’s perks program, and I complained that I found the closing buckle a bit fiddly and let off some steam about how I struggled to charge it.

At the end I remember saying something like “Oh, but it’s cool that I know my resting heart rate now, though.”

It’s kind of ironic how much I focused on the small challenges and gave the fact that I could now track my health much more intelligently only a side comment. Especially since I got the tracker for free.

As part of the Buffer culture, a response like mine is precisely the kind of behavior we try to avoid.

Our “no complaining” rule springs from our focus on positivity and is one of our most strongly held values.

‘No complaining’: Why it’s our policy

Here is how we’ve defined this part of our culture as one of our 10 core values:

Buffer Happiness value

A focus on not complaining creates a happier and more positive environment. This leads to everyone being a bit more fulfilled with every day of their lives, not needing to or being tempted to engage in negative discussion around any given topic.

The best description I’ve found of how this manifests itself is from Rich Pierson, the co-founder of the meditation app Headspace:

“Say you slam a door in someone’s face. Maybe you’re not even conscious of it. And that ruins their morning, and they go on into their office and shout at somebody. That’s a tiny moment, but it ripples out. People say, ‘How are you going to improve the health and happiness of the world?’ Well, if you’ve got millions of people being more mindful of tiny moments like that in their day, yeah: The world will look slightly different.”

This quote in a nutshell explains why we are trying our best to avoid complaining as much as we can.

And yet, this value is still aspirational. There are occasions, like in the example above, where we don’t quite live up to that value of ours. It takes a lot of effort and self-discipline to work toward living by it, but the rewards are amazing.

Hiring and firing with our “no complaining” value

Looking out for patterns of complaining in potential candidates is a key part of our hiring process. It has also has been a reason we’ve let people go in the past.

When I tell people that we routinely don’t hire people after we see a number of negative Tweets, or hear extensive complaining about, say, the hot or cold weather at the start of an interview, they are baffled.

To many, it doesn’t make sense that we would turn someone away who has worked at Google or Facebook, or someone who is clearly skilled, for something that appears so minuscule.

But we believe that our “no complaining” policy stands for a much bigger element of who we are at Buffer.

Originally, this tenet sprung from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

I’ve found that complaining is one of the easiest things we can do as a response to a given situation. Here are the three most common topics I’ve seen people, including myself, complain about:

  • Comcast, Verizon, your internet or cell phone provider
  • Airlines/travel
  • Weather

Complaining about these three things—and I’m sure you can think of many other examples—is so easy because there is no accountability involved.

Comcast and United Airlines are so big, it’s easy to just think of them as a logo and bash them, since we don’t necessarily associate those brands with the people that make up these companies. I’ve done this many times in the past.

And yet, these “easy” examples are often the ones that the most thoughtful people, and those whom we believe have the best chance of being a great culture fit at Buffer, have learned to (largely) avoid.

Walking a fine line: Complaining vs. speaking up

There’s a specific question I like to ask when interviewing potential Buffer team members: “What concerns you about the Buffer culture?”

When I asked a recent candidate (now, soon-to-be team member!) that question, he said he was a little worried about our “no complaining” value. He wondered “Does that mean it’s not good to speak up about issues or problems?”

I thought that was a fascinating observation, and it is a topic where we have struggled to bring more clarity. Eckhart Tolle has a terrific exploration of complaining versus speaking up in the Power of Now:

“Complaining is not to be confused with informing someone of a mistake or deficiency so that it can be put right, and to refrain from complaining doesn’t necessarily mean putting up with bad quality or behavior. There’s no ego in telling the waiter that your soup is cold and needs to be heated up, if you stick to the facts, which are always neutral. “How dare you serve me cold soup!” – that’s complaining. There’s a “me” here that loves to feel personally offended by the cold soup and is going to make the most of it. A “me” that enjoys making someone wrong. The complaining we are talking about is in the service of the ego, not of change.”

Complaining vs speaking up
When Joel pointed me towards the above quote, he also added another very important distinction:

“I think this line is incredibly difficult to walk. I think in a way, when we look for the ‘pattern’ of Tweets from candidates, we are also looking for the intention of their complaining (in service of ego, or in service of change).”

Joel went on to explain:

“I think if any candidate was to be in a situation where they complain and then catch it, share and reflect on it, we would feel they would be a very good fit. In that sense, perhaps all of us in the team regularly discussing this aspect of the positivity value could be very useful.”

As a key learning on the “no complaining” part of our culture, we have realized that it’s important to be mindful of this fine line that’s often difficult to walk, and to also allow for some slack.

As humans, we make mistakes, and as I explained in the opening of this post, I’m far away from not complaining at all.

As a result, we’ve tweaked our hiring process a a bit. Instead of rebuking all examples of complaining, we try to look instead for patterns and intent, and give one-off examples less weight in our screening process.

What do you think?

I’ve struggled with writing about this for some time, as it’s something that can come off as potentially “weird” about Buffer’s culture.

And yet I feel quite strongly about focusing on this, both for myself personally and on a higher level as part of Buffer’s culture.

I greatly appreciate it when team members point out an example of me complaining about something, and I share when I can help someone else if they weren’t quite able to hold themselves to that value in an example.

How does our “no complaining” value feel to you, and how do you navigate the fine line between advocating for change and complaining for ego? I’m keen to hear all your thoughts in the comments!

  • Thanks for the insights on one of the most challenging Buffer values!

    I would differ you’re three examples a little bit. Complaining about (public) transportation and cable/internet providers still touches the work of people, which are, in most cases not visible, as you pointed out. Reflecting about own complains here leads to the point that I condemn people, even if they are not here in the moment. Funny thing – I really often witnessed people complaining noisy about the delay of their train – and in most cases, they are really calm once the train guard arrives.

    For me, with weather it’s a little bit different. Weather is (I think globally) one of the most common small talk topics, where everybody could contribute. And weather (too hot, 2 months of rain,…) could affect health and mood of people. Complaining about the current weather and mentioning my slight headaches might even help the person at the other line of the phone or the webcam to understand my current mood. For sure, it’s a real fine line between expressing my mood and affecting the mood of others!

    Finally: have fun in Iceland and don’t miss the daily baths in one of the hot-pots, even if it’s raining :-)

  • This is a really great post, Leo. It’s so easy to get into a cycle of complaining in business – about clients, coworkers, a project that just isn’t going right, etc. – especially when you’re in a culture that perpetuates that. Positivity and striving to eliminate complaining isn’t “weird” at all. It’s very admirable of you and the entire Buffer team to lean to the side of positivity and assume the best of people/situations, and to bake that right into your culture. More companies should be doing the same.

    Hope you’re having fun in Iceland; it looks like everyone’s having a blast!

  • Daniel Jomphe

    One thing comes to my mind, Leo. Many years ago, as a young driver, I was starting to get in the habit of complaining about how other cars were driving.

    Then after applying some self-awareness to this increasingly regular situation, I observed how people in my car didn’t care about what was happening, and more importantly, how even just bringing up those complaints in my mind affected my own peace of mind. Once I had taken this into account, it became clear to me I should do something about it. But what?

    I started to invent possible excuses for every “bad” driver I encountered. And sometimes, very funny ones, especially when vehement complaints came from other people in my car. After a number of months of efforts on this front, I had successfully reverted this bad habit and grown empathy and mercy towards other human drivers.

    Later, I even started no more needing to invent excuses for other drivers: I also changed my driving habits and expectations of other drivers in such a way that I was putting myself much less often in the position of being a victim of their way of driving. For example, driving farther away behind the car in front of me. Even driving too slowly for a while can be an occasion to look differently at the landscape or streets I’m passing through.

    This kind of thinking can be applied to so many areas of our lives, and I think it’s mostly where it started for me in my life.

    _Disclosure: last week, I applied for a job at Buffer, and yes it helped motivate me to comment on this excellent blog post of yours._

    • Daniel Jomphe

      It wasn’t apparent how I meant to answer your question, so I’m coming back a bit more: I believe the fine line between advocating for change and complaining for ego is carried in the message and reflected in the recipients.

      In other words, how do a message’s recipients feel about it once they receive it? What kind of feelings do we want to “inject” into our recipients, when we prepare that message? Once it’s out, it’s reflection time: How do we ourselves feel about our message, and how did recipients feel and/or react?

      So I believe those feelings and reactions help draw the contours of the fine line between advocating for change and complaining for ego. We clearly have power over how we say things, and thus, we should strive to factor that in to keep our climate positive and creative, and our inner energy levels on the up side.

      A very, very powerful book that drives this all home very convincingly (at least it did to me), is The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile (

      • Kody Atkinson

        Great thoughts in both of these posts! Next time I get frustrated with a driver, I’m going to imagine something funny happened in their car to cause the incident. :-D Also, thanks for the book recommendation. Looks good!

        • Daniel Jomphe

          You’re welcome, Kody, and thanks for your own comment, which I’ve now cited.

    • Daniel, thanks lot for sharing this with others here. It seems you’ve solved it very nicely. As a pretty fresh driver – I’ve got the driving license a year ago – I have this problem too, but when the situation is present, I try to imagine different situations too (maybe they have a pregnant women in the car, they hurry to the sport event or watch a movie, someone in their family might be in trouble etc.). Sometimes it works, sometimes not when there are tens of these little incidents on the road. But sometimes I really enjoy the ride and don’t even notice these situations. I’ve noticed when it is – when I smile. What a observation to me. When I smile and think positively or even sing a little song in my mind, the world is immediately peaceful. My driving becomes smooth, slow, predictable, considerate and how other drivers are driving is not any issue or source of negativity or complains.
      Will you share some of the examples of the excuses? :) I’d love to know them :)

      • Daniel Jomphe

        Petr, thanks for the nice comments. I was like the fast driver in your examples. I was annoyed by people slowing me down. And just like Kody Atkinson said it very well in another comment (adapted here), I “cut people off and didn’t think about them at all. I needed to merge, felt confident doing so in that small spot, so I merged”.

        It’s when I didn’t have enough freedom to compose with the situation that I was tempted to complain. So I’d tell myself…

        Maybe they’re going slow because they’re searching their way.
        Maybe they’re getting older and that’s how they now do things.
        Maybe it’s someone learning to drive, under obligation to go that slow.
        Maybe it’s someone who normally drives how I like, but is sick and having a very bad moment right now.
        (Bonus: Maybe they’re cutting me off because they didn’t remark until now they need to merge here.)
        Maybe that’s how this person needs to drive to feel confident and good about it.

        Especially that last one solved it for me: realizing people drive not for my needs, but for their needs, and that it’s ok for every single one of them to do so.

        Also, to not feel stressed by their needs, what if I left a bit earlier every time I take the wheel? A slow driver will be much less annoying to me if they’re not going to make me late. And why would I give so much power over my life to slow drivers?

        There’s quite an effect-cause ripple effect here. Continuing this thought, how less stressful to my family am I since I started the habit of leaving earlier for my appointments?

        So all those thoughts lead to another very important thing: respecting people down to their cores, humbly acknowledging that we do not know their inner motivations. And like I said before, taking into account a measure of the effect of our message on people before emitting it.

        When we start allowing ourselves to bad-label people, that’s when we start misbehaving with them and that’s the start of a very bumpy and unpleasant road, where there’s lots of mind pollution in our internal dialogue every time we think about them. This is not how we really want to live our lives. Instead, we want to work to respect everybody, reminding ourselves that they’ve got very good explanations for how they are and what they do (sometimes, one of those very good explanations is “I never thought I could do it another way, what do you propose?”). There can be disagreement but it’s liberating to remember there’s always another side to that coin. And sometimes we get to ask them about their side of the coin, and when we do, we often end up feeling closer to them. (But obviously, we don’t get to talk with those drivers, so for them, it’s more a game of trivializing our encounter with them and paying more attention to what’s going on inside ourselves and our car.)

  • Constant complaining could certainly be an indication of someone that may bring negative energy to an organization. Bad for big companies and even more detrimental for the small teams Buffer operates with.

    It’s interesting to look at why we complain. Are we frustrated with a situation we may have little ability to change (like the airlines or cable company) or is it something we could fix but don’t (due to laziness or perceived inability to change it)? Identifying these reasons we complain may help us to identify why we do it and do less of it.

    Based on all the interactions I’ve had with Buffer members, I’d say you’re doing a great job of keeping things very positive. Looks like you and the entire Buffer team are having an awesome time in Iceland. Enjoy!

    • Hey Ben, I think looking at the Why is a great suggestion! How would you act differently for the 2 situations you described (little ability to change and something we could fix but don’t)? :)

    • Hardip

      I think this is a good point, we should definitely consider the ‘why’. Sometimes people who complain are just deeply unhappy (about unrelated things). If we recognise this, we should try and be empathetic rather than shut them down.

  • Amber

    Many times when we complain about the weather or other drivers, for example, these things are simply out of our control. Complaining serves no purpose typically and makes no room for positive change. Do our words lift up or push down? Do our words bring a positive or negative outcome? Things to think about. Thanks for the great post Leo!

    • Kody Atkinson

      Great points! I really love your last question about getting a positive or negative outcome.
      I often try to make myself stop and think about the intention behind an event that might lead me to complain. Can traffic be irritating? Absolutely. But, in reality that guy who just cut me off probably didn’t think about me at all. He needed to merge, so he merged. I’m the one who then took that neutral act and made it personal. If I let it just be something that happened instead of something that was done to ME, it is much easier to avoid anger, frustration, and the desire to complain.

  • TonyVilleda

    Is this website in Spanish language ?

  • One of the big messages from our church’s sermon this past Sunday was: “Humility is knowing the difference between your concerns and your responsibilities.” Too often we neglect our given responsibilities, while we get worked up and stressed over things that are our concerns. Having concerns is natural and fine, but we must leave them at that — just concerns.

    • Avatar Roku

      True. However there is a point where your concerns are big enough that they should become your responsibility. Responsibility is not given, it is taken.

      • That’s a great point, that they can go from concern to responsibilities (though I think that responsibility can be both given & taken).

        But just because someone is concerned with something, doesn’t mean they should take it as their responsibility, especially if they are not in a position to act on it.

  • Kody Atkinson

    First, I think sharing the potentially “weird” things in Buffer’s culture is awesome! It feels like putting this out there fits right in with transparency and honesty. Also, the distinction of “me” vs “change” is fantastic. I’ve always felt the difference between complaining and working towards change when I’ve done them, but I never really knew how to articulate that. So, thank you for a new framework to help me be mindful.
    Personally, I feel avoiding people with a pattern of complaining fits in with Buffer’s values. I don’t see how you could be someone who focuses on positivity, is a no-ego doer, and shows gratitude if you are also someone who complains frequently. Every situation presents a choice to focus on the positive of the negative and to complain you have to choose the negative path. Everyone is going to complain some, we all need to vent from time to time, but a consistent pattern is different. It may be a “weird” way to look at candidates at a more traditional company, but Buffer is anything but traditional. Weird and true to your values feels like the right thing to me!

    • Great point on how we can choose to focus on the positive or negative! How would you recommend someone to focus on the positive over the negative, considering that he might be emotionally unstable when the issue occurs? :)

      • Kody Atkinson

        For me, it’s about being aware of your emotions and then taking a moment to stop and think. Generally, if I lose my temper or wallow in frustration/anger about something it is because I have not taken the to pay attention to what is happening in my own head. We are all going to lose it from time to time, but being aware of it means it happens less often and is easier to recover from when it does happen. I am certainly no expert, but this is what helps me! :)

        • Yeah, that’s helpful! Thanks :) I think meditation and being mindful will help with that.

  • Juliet

    That’s a wonderful post, Leo. Thank you so much for sharing! I’ve also challenged myself to not complaining for the past few years, and it can be extremely difficult since I live in London where people bond by complaining about the weather together! Having lived in Taiwan, the US and the UK, the cultural difference between “complaining” is also very interesting. :)

    The reason why I personally want to stop complaining is exactly as you described – complaining doesn’t lead to change for the better. It is also for me about empathy. As entrepreneurs, we come to understand the difficulties of running a business. Most certainly the public transportation can always be better, but it’s extremely difficult (and expensive!) to make the infrastructure work for everyone living in the city. If we simply take one step further to consider the difficult choices many people must make to improve the public transportation (or the airlines or cable service), then we’ll be less inclined to complain about it. It’s too easy to complain! Instead, I often try to turn complaints into constructive feedbacks which I’ll share with those organisations or simply try to do something about it myself! It’s really great to see how Buffer and others think about this, and I completely agree that by doing small things like no complaining, the positive ripple effect can be really powerful!

    Hope Buffer team is having a great time in Iceland! :)

  • Thanks, Leo, for sharing this. Sharing this might seem weird but I have a feeling that if it can lead to a constructive discussion, it would help make us more positive :)

    Tim Ferris previously wrote a blog post about complaining ( He gave an interesting perspective. He felt that if a person indicates steps to fix the problem, it is not considered as a complaint. It encourages the person to think of ways to resolve the issue. If defined this way, then I guess that “no complaining” would more plausible.

    For example, I’ve recently been to a few cafes with really poor internet connection. Instead of venting my anger (complain), it would be better to simply relocate to another cafe with better wifi :)

    I would differentiate advocating for change from complaining for ego if the statements made could resolve the issue at hand in a nice manner (ie. not make the receiving party feel sad or negative or frustrated).

    • Hi Alfred,

      that’s a pretty interesting perspective here, especially regarding that whether statements could help resolve the issue at hand in a nice manner. That’s a really cool distinction.

      It reminds me of a video I watched some time ago, on a more macro level, on dissatisfaction and how one could respond to situations on which you are unhappy about:

      The distinction is between voice & exit. In your example of leaving the coffee shop, it might be a better option for you and the coffee shop to rather “exit” than use “voice”.

      Each case seems different, so I’m not 100% which is better in most cases. :) For example, if your home country has systemic corruption, would you rather stay and voice your concern (hopefully in a constructive manner) or leave. Both could produce the same outcome I feel and sometimes exit has a stronger message while being mindful of in the interaction that voice could produce.

      It’s fun to think about & empathy is key here! :)

      • It would be interesting to learn how Buffer would describe this contribution from Balaji in regards to the no complaining value.

      • Hey Niel! Thanks for sharing the video! I like the idea of peacefully opting out when you feel that things cannot be changed. Yep, I think you are right, it probably depends on the circumstances of each case :)

    • Tanya Jones

      Such a great discussion!! On one hand I agree that simply switching to a different cafe might be the path of least resistance.

      On the other hand I also feel that it could be potentially beneficial to have a polite conversation with management to let them know.

      Example: “I really enjoy your coffee and atmosphere! Unfortunately, the Internet connectivity has been causing me some challenges. I understand that it can be a difficult feature to provide to customers and that it is an add-on benefit, so for now I need to switch to a different Cafe. I hope you understand. I just wanted to let you know so you weren’t left wondering why I stopped coming.”

  • Leo, this is a wonderful post, thanks for taking your time to share your struggles and discoveries with one of the greatest values you have in the Buffer culture. I can totally relate to your quote: “It takes a lot of effort and self-discipline to work toward living by it, but the rewards are amazing.” – it takes a lot of effort to me sometimes too and also with approaching things always in a positive and optimistic way. The solution which works for me is the self-realization. Once I realize I start to think about something in a negative way or to complain I say to myself to try it from a different perspective. What if it isn’t that bad and in fact it is pretty good. The results of keeping positive approach and no complaining are so liberating. I can’t imagine how it must be awesome to work with likeminded people like you do in Buffer. It sounds almost like a dream or paradise and I’m pretty confident that your team members will describe working at Buffer like that right? :) It is definitely worth the effort.

    Also to know that you choose your core values over the work experience is just amazing. From the past couple years I read your blog posts I tend to think the same, that you choose your team members for who they are and how they fit into your team. I’d love to see this trend in the future or better in the present with other companies too.

    The hardest thing right now for me is probably how to react in the real life situations when you want to point out something like you said in the restaurant. To speak up and not harm the other person. Dale Carnegie is a big help here. Acknowledging the persons point of view and situation and politely asking to remedy the situation is something that works pretty great. Letting go of your ego helps a lot in these situations and looking from the other persons perspective too.

    Thank you so much guys for giving so much great examples of the core values in your comments, tweets, blog posts. It helps a lot. Thank you and enjoy your Buffer Retreat in Iceland :)

  • Thanks for sharing your ideas with the readers! It’s always interesting to see how culture is built at various companies.

    However, there’s an important thing I realized some time ago – in fact, I changed my mind (before I thought that complaining should be battled at all times)

    For some types of character (or, if to be precise, for some social types combined with certain peculiarities of the nervous system) ‘mild’ complaining (meaning, the person is not involved into complaining all the time, and he/she is actually more or less ready to provide decisions) is a good or even an only way to release some energy. Or, in case of force majeure, when you can’t actually do anything but digest it somehow, such behavior can be a release and a way to cope with stress and understanding and acceptance that you can’t actually change the circumstances. As this process is complex and very hard, people need something to go through it.

    I thought that for me it works when I’m very emotional and working to accept what I can’t control – and it’s not a destructive behavior, it is a social pattern and a sudden feeling of relief when you understand that if something happened you shouldn’t control and restrict yourself fully, and still this reaction is a signal about your feelings (without too many brain things here), and your colleagues receive that signal and can support you if they want.

    Of course, such behavior also has very fine limits, which also depends on the social group we’re talking about. I’m more about thinking that we should be more open in expressing feelings, at the same time being smarter in how we do that to send the right signals and don’t hurt people around.

    However, I know people that work on their behavior in the way you described it, and I feel like it’s blocking our real emotions too much. That’s an illustration of the fact that we all are very different =)

  • I think that is a great way to build a strong, solution oriented team for your company.

    It reminds me of the Carol Dewck “Mindset” book. Most complainers have the “fixed-mindset” where as many people who remain in a positive state have “learner-mindset” so when they do talk about a “problem” they are finding a solution to it rather than just saying “Oh, this really sucks and it’s so unfortunate that it’s bad…” etc.

    As I build my company, I want to keep this in mind during the hiring process.

    P.S., so glad you shared it and I don’t think it’s weird at all! I think if more companies did this we wouldn’t have so many people who despise the “9 to 5” … Other corporations and businesses might want to know about this model as a solution for HR’s hiring and employee engagement ;-)

  • I love that this is one of Buffer’s values because it really does change so much about the way you approach life.

    I’ve noticed in my own life that when I’m constantly complaining about little things that are out of my control, like the weather, not only does it automatically make my general disposition a bit more negative, but I’m far less likely to notice all the benefits and wonderful things happening around me. It makes sense that the same logic would apply in a working environment — if you’re constantly complaining, it’s almost like you’re looking for something to be wrong, which doesn’t lend itself to constructive feedback and improvement.

  • Taylor McLeod

    Good. I’m glad I’m not the only one that was worried about the no-complaining value. If I were being interviewed to work at Buffer, that would be one of my biggest concerns. “No complaining” could mean a place where everyone pretends things are fine even when they’re not – and that’s scary.

    So many leaders don’t even touch these important issues. You’re absolutely right: it’s about intent.

  • Arijit Mukherjee

    This is one inspiring post, Leo!
    Culture is, indeed, what can be the transformational factor for the work environment. Add to that a definite and clear WHY that is the bedrock of that culture and the workplace will not only be transformational but inspirational!

  • That was a very nuanced, yet powerful post. I need to get off the complain train.

    Complaining without changing is a huge waste of energy. I like to tell my friends when they are complaining about a personal issue that it would be tragic if we were having the exact same conversation a year from now.

    Lots of complaint quotes here my fave being:

    “Imagine if every Thursday your shoes exploded if you tied them the usual way. This happens to us all the time with computers, and nobody thinks of complaining.”

    Jef Raskin

  • Teresa wolf

    Some people complain so much they don’t even realize they are doing it. Great points and thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Leo! I don’t find that weird at all. In fact, I’m very pleased that you’ve written and shared this, as you’ve put into writing a kind of ‘sense’ that I’ve had about myself and others for a long time, but have never been able to articulate.

    I think this is such a great idea, I’ve already shared it with my own team, and will be talking about it with my family as well!

  • I agree about cutting the complaints to a minimum. The one rule I think every companies should have is to not complain about customers. This creates some kind of us vs them divide for employees and it is one of the most poisonous complaining types.

    When it comes to weather, travel… You can’t ignore the cultural aspect of it. In Poland, complaining is a national sport. It’s not that people are negative, it’s just a way to bound with strangers. We’re in the same boat kind of thing.

  • Steve

    Thanks for sharing. I’m curious if “not complaining” starts to become a habit? Or do you feel like you still have to work as hard at it as when you first adopted the rule?

  • Daniel Jomphe

    Leo, this article came back to me in my meditation this morning. What if you, at Buffer, had a chat room called *Struggling*, where people have this “contract” that they can bring up subjects with which they’re struggling, and explain how they are seeking to find their way through this struggle, and where others can ask questions to the “struggler” to help them find their way through the struggle in a positive manner?

    The name “Struggling”, by itself, suggests it’s a channel to discuss issues truthfully, openly, constructively and positively. So how would that play out? Here’s something I can imagine and relate to:

    – Me: Dear Team, I’m struggling with seeing positively (e.g.) the decisions to develop, and then to remove, our Suggestions feature. To be really transparent about it, I feel we’ve invested *so much* energy into making it a reality and improving it, and now I’m fighting against this feeling that keeps coming back at me that we’ve lost direction and that we’re running in circles, not knowing anymore how we can truly do the right thing for our users. I’m sometimes tempted to think we’ve lost The Way, you know, and this hurts, and here’s how: now that we’re back to doing what we were doing prior to the Suggestions feature, I see myself incapable of doing it with the same passion that I had before. Please tolerate this characterization that really tells how I feel: it’s like I had been robbed of the sense of making a valuable difference in the world. This sense, I had it, but I’ve lost it and I fear that it may not come back if we don’t help me find my way through this struggle.

    In this context, it goes without saying (but let me be explicit about it) that I’m dealing with a kind of stress I _never_ felt before at Buffer: the fear that we may invest again in a direction that wouldn’t bring back a great sense of accomplishment, shared by both our users and ourselves. I long to feel the daily thrill again of improving this Big Feature we’ve released three months ago and that we’re still passionately improving until we get it right for the most part of our users, and to make it so good in fact that people will keep talking about it and about how we made it so impressively great, natural, approachable, and, you know, how they can’t think about ever going back to what they were doing before. Oh, how I’m in love with this idea, and how I long to live it again!

    Well, what an outpouring of my heart… I don’t know what I can add for now. I’m so thankful to be able to work with all of you every day, and I get the feeling I might not be the only one who’s struggling with this. I also know you’ll empathically and sympathetically welcome me in this struggle. Thanks!

    Now, if some of you have gotten it completely settled for them, please be patient with me, as I can’t seem to close on this as quickly as you did, but I want, and with all my heart. You know, I admire how you’ve been able to make peace with this, and how you were hurt but are now completely back up, full steam ahead in your usual passion – and I love you like that. I’m not angry at you for being better at coming up to terms with this than I am. I’m also not angry at myself for not being as quick as you are. So now, I hope I can learn from you.

    With all that said, is there something I could internalize in my life to get back on track, and is there something we could do together if I’m not alone in this struggle, to relieve us of all this cognitive tax we’re experimenting? You can take your time to answer this, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. I’d like us to walk together towards a convincingly positive outlook on what we learned, where we stand, and where we’re going now in a new, improved way.

    – E.g. Kevan: Dan, I can definitely relate to all that you said, and I’m very much interested in helping you sort your way through this struggle. In fact, I also continue struggling with this in much the same way that you do. Where could we start, or in fact, continue on your start? I’m so thankful you took this initiative! Let’s fight this struggle together.

    – E.g. Courtney: Dan, thank you so much for coming out about this. It hurts me that you feel this way about it, and I *so* hope that we’ll be able together to help you get all the way through it! You know how much I was invested in Suggestions, and how I hurt for some time about it. I’m not sure exactly what helped me reach closure about it, let me think… For sure, there was a big step involved in letting it go, and I think what helped is how I’ve continued being thankful every day for working with people like you, with users as great as ours. This definitely helped me get back the passion I had lost, but I think there may be more to it. Let me think more about it and in the meantime, please tell me how you feel about what I just said. And take heart, we’re in this all together!

    – E.g. Leo: Dear Dan, first, again, I understand the pain you’re going through, and it hurts me seeing you struggling with this. We all love you so much here and we’re so continuously thankful for the relentless inspiration that you bring to improve every aspect of our work for ourselves and our users. If you didn’t find closure about this yet, it’s certain that we want to take our time and help you through it. Don’t let this come across as accusative, as it’s definitely not, but you seem to hint that we’ve had an unconvincingly positive outlook on some of the lessons we learned about this and the decisions we took about going forward. Thinking about it, it’s true that we may have been too quick about it and not stopped enough to learn all that we can out of it. I suggest two possibilities: 1) you could tell us what specifically didn’t convince you, or 2) we could all review the points we learned, one by one, asking ourselves if each one is really convincingly positive or if it feels shaky. Whatever we choose, I know we might help ourselves reach a real sense of closure over this for everybody at Buffer. I’m really hoping for the best. We made an error and we can learn even more out of it, for sure! And once we’ve found our way to the end of this struggle, I propose that we blog about it as it’ll definitely be inspiring both to ourselves and to our readers.

    So that’s the idea I got for a *Struggling* chat room. Do you feel it can really help people be open and support each other about what they struggle with, without falling into complaining? And did this long example of mine (sorry!) came across as complaint, or as speaking up in service of positive, durable, meaningful change?

  • During my career I’ve been at a company where everything seemed to be unicorns and rainbows. I disagree with that approach because it hides problems and shoves conflict constantly into the latent state instead of trying to resolve it.
    On the other hand I agree that negativity breeds negativity. This is why you usually see the same group of people getting together to complain or gossip. It does bring down morale and just as bad it removes the focus from people.
    This all to say that I appreciate your post as you transparently express that the Buffer culture is trying to be fully no-complains, but also needs to allow people to speak up when something is wrong. It’s a fine line, but one that can be walked on more easily when one distinguishes between destructive complaint and constructive comment.

  • minimale

    Thanks for sharing. My belief is that people should focus on being grateful for what is positive in their life, workplace included, and don’t waste energy in complaing. But I find your “no complaining policy” (if I got it right) missing the point. The point , in my view, is caring about people, being attentive to their emotions (positive or not) and underying basic needs. Emotional intelligence. The rest will follow. “No complaing” (and the way you declined it) seems a poor rule, robbing people of humanity and transparency. How much more effective and mature would be teaching people mindfulness and non violent communication !

  • minimale

    Let’s think about children (people with tipically big ego and little self restraining). Ask whatever parent you know. “Don’t complain!” doesn’t really work to grow a positive attitude. It is like hiding ashes under the carpet. “Let me know how you feel” works. And works even if you don’t grant him what he asked for. He’ll learn to channel his energies and understand the emotion leading to the complaint. And stop it. Try!

  • minimale

    I’m surprised I don’t find my posts anymore. just in case you felt somehow hurt I apologize. I understood you were looking for other people opinions. Good luck.

    • Hey there, just wanted to check in on this! I see 3 comments from you here; are there more that aren’t showing up? Sometimes Disqus can trap some of them and I can go in and look for those. We want all opinions offered in good faith here. :)

  • Steve Bussey

    “Complaining about these three things—and I’m sure you can think of many other examples—is so easy because there is no accountability involved.”

    It can be very difficult to break these habits. The first step is mindfulness and thinking through what you are about to say in a stressful situation! Really enjoyed this post and it has helped in my quest to be a more mindful individual.

  • Avatar Roku

    Sounds like the recipe for failure. The complainers are often the ones who seek and desire perfection or constant improvement. The satisfied are the good enough, just give me my pay check, what’s everyone doing this weekend crowd. Lets put it this way, Apple didn’t get to where it is by making the work environment be only shiny happy people holding hands. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates certainly didn’t operate under this Millennial touchy feely no negativity nonsense.

    Serenity Now = Insanity Later

  • Liza

    This is a great post, thank you for writing it Leo! I have worked really hard at choosing positivity in all aspects of my life in the past six months, and I agree that it takes determination and mindfulness to do. My university is very new and so things often go wrong, which leads to a lot of complaints from the student body. But I have found that there is a way of identifying a problem without being negative, particularly when look at what ‘we’ can do about it rather than focusing on moaning about what went wrong. I love that Buffer strives for this and how aware you guys are about positivity being a choice. I would love to work for you when I graduate precisely because I feel like my values are very much in line with that of Buffer’s, and the more I hear the more I love!

  • I’m wondering how you deal with catharsis. Humans are complex, emotional animals. They have negative thoughts and feelings. To not release these is very dangerous.

  • Chris

    “Complaining = In service of the ego, Speaking up = In service of change”

    This article has been a HUGE help in clearly helping me define the difference between being one who simply complains and being one who wants to point out what’s wrong in hopes to bring about a dialogue about how we can fix it.

    As someone with a design background I tend to look at things from the perspective of function.

    I always want things to be more efficient or have a better user experience but a lot of the times expressing what’s wrong can come across like complaining and/or insulting.

    Armed with this knowledge I hope to take steps to eliminating the ego when ever possible and focusing on better results.

    Thanks Leo!

  • Ian Collins

    Just read this (a bit late!) How do you respond when someone talks about something, possibly negative that people would normally complain about, that has happened to them and turns it into humour, like a funny story? does that still count as complaining?

  • As a non native English speaker, the whole post seemed weird to me until you finally explained the differences between “advocating for change” and “complaining for ego”. Then it became clear.

    The confusion comes from the word “complain”. Its exact meaning wasn’t clear to me in the beginning because when translating it, it carries a different set of cultural aspects. I suspect the phrasing “no complaining” might arouse different interpretations often.

    I think I might be a heavy complainer. I believe all the things that are wrong should be clear to everyone it all times and we should always be ready to rethink something to make it better. But I also try to detach the personal aspects of complaining. The fact the things are not ideal does not mean people are not doing their best.

    A fine line indeed.

    • Brendan Moore

      Juan, thanks for sharing your perspective from another language. I found it interesting and part of it resonated with me.

      Looking for the way that things can break and cause problems is a big part of Engineering as a discipline. This is not done to criticize the work or detract its creators, but to elevate the work to a better version of itself. If we see a possible failure point, we want to “fix” it before it fails. This in done in service of the greater good, not the ego.

      Of course the delivery is what matters, because even a well meaning suggestion can come across all wrong. I get the impression that this is where the core value of Positivity comes into play.


  • Tanya Jones

    I love this article and concept, and if this is “weird” well, then I fit right in!! Of course none of us are perfect and awareness is typically the first step in pretty much anything. While reading this I’ve been trying really hard to recall what things I might have been caught “complaining” about. It’s harder to recall than I thought it would be. That could be a good thing, maybe I don’t ever complain?? Haha, more likely that I don’t notice it and no one has pointed it out!!

    The one thing I do know that I have complained about recently is, ironically, people who complain! Though on reflection, even when voicing this I come from the position of “I don’t understand why people complain? If you don’t like something offer a solution or remove yourself. Why do people stay in a situation that creates a negative reaction in them without trying to improve it?”

    It is something that bothers me, but is that actually complaining? I’m not sure.

  • Brendan Moore

    Leo, thanks for sharing on a complicated and sometimes personal topic. It gave a good insight into Buffer’s values and why you hold them dear.

    I was hoping to learn more about how the values of Positivity and Communicate with Clarity come together in the context of voicing dissent or disagreement. Of course one should always be respectful of others when debating ideas, and I wholeheartedly agree with letting others save face whenever possible. That said, do you or any colleagues ever have issues with delivering an opposing opinion clearly while avoiding taking on an overly negative disposition?

    It seems like it could be tricky at times to thread that particular needle effectively.


  • Hardip Kaur

    Hi Leo,

    Really great, thought-provoking post.

    I completely agree with the complaining vs speaking up and I like the Eckhart Tolle example. Nobody should act or speak reactively and it’s important to stay mindful, especially in these situations. Getting angry doesn’t get anyone anywhere!

    However, I do think we have to take into account the place in which the complaint is coming from.

    Perhaps it’s a British thing, but I don’t see all complaints as negative and it’s important to distinguish between the different types:

    1) The ANGRY complainer: often complains for the sake of it and acts without thinking. This is what we want to avoid, should be aware of and consciously not do. (I think this is what you’re referring to in the post)
    E.g. “I can’t believe it’s raining and I have no umbrella, I hate this country!! ARGHKJDKG!”

    2) The JOVIAL complainer: not actually angry, but finds humour in talking about a situation and often uses this to bond with their neighbour.
    E.g. “HA! It’s raining! I guess I’ll be rocking the drowned rat look again”

    There are so many comedians that make a lot of people happy/laugh with their commentary and complaints, so it’s not all bad :)

    P.S. I’m also hoping to one-day apply for a job at Buffer, HELLO!

    • Hardip

      I’ve actually been thinking about this and wanted to add another point…

      I think we should consider that negative emotions are just a part of human nature, but it’s how we handle them that’s key. Through meditation especially we can recognise when these feelings come up, observe them and actually laugh ourselves.

      Just my 2 cents :)

  • Michelle

    I totally get this! It’s about acting versus reacting. It reminds me of the Serenity Prayer that I have hanging in the kitchen. Accept the things you cannot change, and change the things you can. Have the wisdom to know the difference.
    Lol, about complaining about the weather, I know I’ve been guilty of this but making the change to move to California so I don’t ever complain about the cold again. :) Often, I believe people complain about weather as a conversation filler.

  • Mark Deeb

    This article was a great reminder to me how we constantly need an attitude of gratitude. What I really enjoyed was how you caught yourself and pivoted to being grateful for the little things! Thanks for being so transperent!

  • cranky_olive

    I believe your intent is good, and you’ve made some changes in your policy that are friendlier to people who “speak up,” as you put it, instead of “complaining.”

    However, myriad studies show that different types of people are perceived, regardless of what they have actually said, of being more “complainy.” I’m talking about unconscious bias, not overt bias–stuff people don’t even realize they’re doing until it’s too late, if ever.

    Given Buffer’s public positioning as a company that promotes diversity, I wonder how it plays out when a person of color or a woman (or a woman of color) speaks up about a problem. Again, Buffer would probably publicly contend that they would in theory congratulate and reward this person just as they would a white dude. But a “no complaining” policy, in combination with unconscious bias–which again, has been documented in workplace studies–means that a minority is more likely to be dismissed and penalized as complaining, or to have someone ding them for not supplying an immediate solution to the problem they’ve reported.

    So when Buffer keeps tooting the “no complaining” horn, it really sends up a red flag for me, even when ostensibly softened as described later on in this article. I certainly prefer a grouch-free environment, but what’s described here sounds like Buffer employees have to watch every single thing they say lest they seem negative to someone. I wouldn’t want to work in such an environment.

  • I understand wanting a positive workplace, but this risks excluding really good people who have a lot to contribute. I hate to throw that word out but it feels like a privileged perspective. People often have very good reasons to complain and make a ruckus. I think that hits on the distinction that you touched upon about complaining vs. advocating for change.

    Without considering why someone chooses to complain, you’re missing a very big slice of talent because the act of complaining is a red flag. There are also cultural elements that come into play, so a rule like this misses out on what would truly be a diverse workforce. It’s good to see that Buffer has tweaked the hiring process because a general rule against complaining is way too broad. I know some great people that are very committed to gender and racial diversity in the workplace. To some they’re just complaining, but to others they’re doing important work on issues that need to be solved. All of those people are also insanely good at what they do.

    I know that I Tweet and comment on my social streams about current events and race issues too. I’ve also led a growing group here in San Francisco that meets regularly on topics of tech and social change. You miss the big picture with a hiring policy that by definition is going to exclude just about everyone that’s had challenges that they’ve dealt with and are trying to change for the greater good.

  • Anthi Malteza

    The ‘No-complaining Policy’ makes total sense, in that complaining coincides to a passive (or even passive – aggressive sometimes) behavior whereas speaking up equates to taking action, addressing an issue and even suggesting a solution.

    This enables a culture of speaking up – thus a culture of problem identifiers and solvers, a culture of positive action!

    I think that the most important aspect of this is exactly the cultural one: unless every person within an organization is encouraged to accept and apply the policy of speaking up (whoops, perhaps Policy of Speaking Up sounds happier than No-complaining Policy because it implies positive action? :) ), most people would probably hold themselves back in order to avoid being stigmatized.

  • Great post Leo! Last week i had this learning that i complain a lot and then started watching myself. Since being mindful helped me in staying a little more positive (there’s a lot of work needed still) i came back to office and shared my learning with my colleagues. And we agreed that all of us would watch ourselves (and others).
    Yesterday a colleague shared this post with us and i was pretty happy to see it. Primarily because it gives some validation to my thought.
    It’s been more than a year since you wrote this – would love know how has this shaped/changed Buffer?

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies