Dealing with Chronic Complainers in the Workplace

February 25, 2013

Every workplace has some people who are chronic complainers. Greater workplace stress due to recent staff reductions has increased worries. In addition, high workloads due to staff reductions and limited hiring in many workplaces have increased many people’s tendency to complain. About 18% of U.S. employees are “actively disengaged,” negative and likely to complain about their employers, according to an annual Gallup poll of 31,265 employees. This negativity can spread like a cancer according to Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management and well-being.

Listening to their complaining can sap your own productivity according to Wall Street Journal jobs columnist Sue Shellenbarger. Over-exposure to workplace negativity can disrupt learning, reduce focus and affect one’s judgment according to Stanford University neurology professor Robert Sapolsky. As more chemical workplaces shift from offices to cubicles, it becomes harder to avoid these complainers. What can you, do to reduce or limit the harmful effects of chronic complainers?

You could reduce your exposure to chronic complainers by spending some of your time working in a different location such as the company library or a home office. Turn the tables on the complainer by asking what he or she intends to do about the problem. Alternatively, when the complainer gripes about a coworker or manager, suggest that this person talk directly to the source of the complaint and politely terminate the conversation. If your workplace has an ombudsman to whom employees can take their workplace problems, suggest that the coworker take their complaint to this individual. Many organizations also have a viable Human Resources office with Business Partners that are skillful in handling these situations or offering sound advice.

Manager tactics

If you’re the manager of a chronic complainer schedule a conversation with the individual. Don’t let them reduce your own productivity by interrupting what you are doing. Let them know you not only want to hear their complaints but focus on them. This conveys your willingness to listen and limits the effect of their complaining on your own productivity, the teams, and other departments across the organization Set an agenda for this meeting. Allow a certain amount of time for complaints. Then move on from the complaints to a discussion of solutions for at least some of the problems. That way the discussion will be more than just a litany of complaints.

Many complainers just want to be heard. Practice effective listening skills and control your desire to argue with and interrupt the complainer. Indicate focus by avoiding distractions like checking your e-mail, glancing at your watch or even checking a mobile device. Use appropriate body language like occasionally nodding your head. Don’t indicate disagreement at this stage of the conversation. At the end of the allotted time for listening, ask the complainer if they want your perspective. If they don’t, conclude the conversation by saying something like, “I hope I was able to provide a secure sounding board for you to vent about your situation.” or “Thank you for sharing with me, I’m glad you trust me to listen to you.”

If the complainer does want your perspective don’t be overly negative. Instead possibly begin by giving your advice by saying, “If I were in this situation I would….” You could also state something like, “You have made valid points, but if I may help you see both sides…” Should the complainer disagree or thinks your advice won’t work, limit the discussion by saying, “Okay, thank you for at least allowing me to listen and offer a neutral opinion.” Then conclude the conversation and go back to work.

If this approach doesn’t work, shift the emphasis to the positive. When the person starts complaining, try to shift the conversation back to the positive by asking what seems to be going well. Get the complainer to focus on the positive by changing their attitude to some degree. Sometimes complainers can expose a real problem. If this is the case, ask the person to come back to you with a realistic solution to the problem or seek out their manager or Human Resources specialist.

One thing to consider is whether there is a serious mismatch between the complainer and their work assignment. If so the solution may be reassignment to another position or enrollment in a course to enhance a skill deficit. Persistent complaining can be incredibly annoying. Try to surround yourself with people who bring you up rather than down. I do try very hard to do this when choosing my own project teams.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

Do You Need a NOT To Do List?

February 18, 2013

I am a great believer in lists. I write them all the time – things to do, places’ to go, trips to plan…but my all-time favorite list is a list of things NOT to do.

Once upon a time, I was on the executive committee of a professional organization.  We conducted most of our business by email and phone, but met in person a couple times a year.  As much as we tried to concentrate on the business at hand, there were a few issues that seemed to come up at every meeting.  These were mainly philosophical issues – whether something was within our mission, or if we should address a particular issue.

Over and over we would discuss the same question, and the group in the room would come to a decision as to whether a particular activity was within our scope or not, and how we were going to move forward.  Then, a few months later, a slightly different group would meet, the issue would come up again, and after a lengthy discussion they would come to a different decision.  Usually this was the result of a slightly different combination of people present at the meeting, and not due to any change in material facts or technical parameters.

One year, the committee chair created a list of these topics.  He started the meeting by reading “The List of Things We Will Not Discuss”.  Everyone laughed, but at that meeting we did not discuss any of those issues, instead, accepting the decision of the previous group and moving forward from there.  That meeting was one of the most productive we held in a long time.  From then on, it became a tradition to start each meeting by listing “The Things We Will Not Discuss”, to remind ourselves not to re-visit the decisions of previous boards, but instead focus on implementing those decisions and moving forward.
I’ve always thought that was a brilliant solution to a problem that occurs in any number of places.  The group made a decision, and future incarnations of the group were not allowed to go back and change that decision (unless there were related factual changes). Because a decision to go one way or the other was necessary to move forward, this simple step saved countless hours of re-hashing the same discussion that produced no useful action.

This same idea can also work for you in your professional lives.  Once you’ve made a decision to do something (which is really a decision NOT to do something else), accept that decision, move forward, and focus your energy on what you chose to do. Write down your new goal, the steps you are going to take to achieve it, as well as the associated things on which you are NOT going to spend any more time. Often, we waste a lot of mental energy looking backwards, wondering if we made the right decision, agonizing over what might have been or if we should change our decision.  In reality, it may take months or years before you understand the full ramifications of a major decision, and you will probably never know what would have happened if you had taken a different path.

So, try writing down your own list of “Decisions I Will Not Revisit”, or “Things About Which I Will Not Think”, or even “Things I will NOT Do”.  The physical act of writing them down, not to mention having to form specific words from vague ideas, is a tremendous first step towards embracing your decision, moving forward, and letting go of the other possibilities.

Letting go of the things you can’t change, and directing your energy towards the places where you can, will make a huge difference in what you can accomplish, and where you can go from here.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

How to Write a Research Paper

February 11, 2013

For a scientist, if you don’t publish your results, it may as well not exist.  Communicating the results of your experiments is crucial, so others in your field can learn from, repeat, and expand on your work.  While there are a wide variety of journals and other publication venues from which to choose, the actual process of writing a paper varies little between them.

Professor Peter D. Battle, an inorganic professor at Oxford University, recently shared the process he uses to write a research paper with a group of students at Edinburgh University, and kindly allowed me to share his process here as well.

When, Where, Who, What and Why

Obviously, the first step is to decide when you have enough data to publish, where you will publish it, who the authors will be, and exactly what will and will not be included in this particular article.   (Why we publish is left as an exercise for the reader.)  In general, you need to learn what the smallest publishable unit is to allow your article to be published in a journal with a high impact factor.  Impact factor is a numerical score that measures the average number of times an article in that journal is cited in other articles, a commonly used measure of prestige.

Read the Directions

Every journal has instructions to authors, usually available on their website.  Once you’ve targeted a journal for submission, download their instructions and follow them exactly.  There is no easier way to guarantee rejection than by not following the prescribed format.

Start with Figures

Professor Battle starts the writing process by creating the figures and tables that will accompany the article.  Collecting all the data makes it quite obvious if data are missing, when there is still time to go back to the lab and do another experiment. The table and figure titles should be both informative and detailed, with the font size in the figures about double that used for article text.  Color can add clarity to the data, but can also increase publication costs.  You may want to create three separate versions of each figure – one for black and white printing (with symbols), one for color printing (with colored lines), and one for use in oral or poster presentations (with even larger titles and less explanatory text).


In the experimental section, detail not only what you did and how you did it, but why.  This can be a great learning opportunity, to think about ways you might do things differently in the future. Be sure to include enough details so someone else could reproduce your work.  If you include references to standard methods, make sure you actually read the papers and understand them.

Results and Discussion

The results section is where you describe your findings, detailing the non-negotiable facts that came from your experiments.  The discussion section is where you put those findings in context and draw conclusions – and these conclusions may be open for debate.

Summarize, then Summarize Some More

Now that the bulk of the paper is written, go back and write the introduction. Summarize what the reader needs to know in order to read the discussion, and again include relevant references.  Summarize the entire paper into the abstract – repeat information from each of the now completed sections to present a cohesive, general overview of the entire paper.  Finally, summarize the entire abstract into a concise, informative title that describes your work in as few words as possible.

Throughout the process, be sure to follow all author guidelines and professional ethical guidelines.  Prepare the submission packet with all required forms and information, and a well-written cover letter that describes the impact of your research. If you suggest reviewers, don’t suggest people you’ve worked with since the editors will just reject them.

Response from the Editor

The peer review process exists to improve the quality of scientific research, maintain standards, and provide credibility. When you receive the editor’s response to your submission, remember that it is not a personal attack.  Read the reviewers comments, and then set them aside for 24 hours.  Realize that if the reviewers had problems with a certain issue, other readers will most likely have the same issues. Strive to understand their concerns, and revise the paper to address them.  Prepare a detailed response, describing exactly what you changed.  If you choose not to change the submission in response to reviewers’ comments, tell the editor exactly why not.

At the completion of this process, your results will be published and shared with the rest of the scientific community. Their comments and feedback will help advance your work, in a continual cycle of learning and improvement.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press. Special thanks to Professor Peter D. Battle for source material and insightful review comments. 

What Are You Saying – Or Not Saying?

February 4, 2013

We all know that communication skills are crucial for success in your career (and in life).  In the employment world, one of your most important communications is your resume – the document that describes your professional history, and (hopefully) opens the door to new career possibilities.

But as important as your resume is, it’s only a small piece of your whole picture.  It’s that next step – the interview – that actually determines whether or not you get the job.  Face to face communication allows you to use not only words, but enriches the communication by adding appearance, voice inflection and body language.  Research supports the power of even small changes in body language for effective communication and relationship building.


The next time you meet someone new, make sure to smile.  Research shows that smiling promotes trust among strangers (, and smiling faces are actually easier to remember ($=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed).

Slouching Makes You Sad

Body posture is important for multiple reasons.  Not only do others assume things about you from your posture, but it can actually affect both your mood and your energy level. For example, slouching makes you look less important to others, and can actually increase your feelings of depression.  Whether sitting down or walking, keeping your chin held high and your shoulders back will improve your look and your mood, as well as increasing your energy levels.  (

Confidence is Catching

It’s important to project competence and confidence in your own abilities, and a recent study suggests there’s no need to worry about appearing too confident – in fact you can actually gain social status that way ( People who are highly confident speak more often and more confidently, provide more information and answers, and appear more calm and relaxed when working with their peers. Displays of competence are sometimes given more weight than actual competence, so don’t be afraid to let your abilities shine through.

Power and Pride

People with power, from either position or circumstances, tend to make themselves physically bigger and more expansive. (Why is the speaker at and event on a raised platform?  Why does the boss have a bigger desk?).  When you emulate the posture of power, you actually make yourself feel more powerful. For example, having people privately assume a high-power pose (standing up straight, hands on hips, chin up, and feet apart) for 2 minutes before going into a stressful situation actually changed their hormone levels and made them more risk tolerant, more likeable, and more likely to be hired. (

Read Body Language in Others

Finally, when making inferences about other people, make sure you are not misreading their body language.  For example, is your co-worker really angry with you, or is she crossing her arms because she is cold? Pay attention to the body language of others (, and you’ll be able to ensure your listeners understand your message.

By paying more attention to nonverbal signals, you can change the way you are perceived by others, as well as changing the way you perceive yourself.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—brought to you by ACS Careers.