Dealing with Chronic Complainers in the Workplace

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.

6 Responses to Dealing with Chronic Complainers in the Workplace

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