How to Deal With a Chronic Complainer in the Workplace

Three employees gossiping in the office
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Working with a chronic complainer is annoying and exhausting. You know the type—nothing pleases them, and they find fault in management’s every utterance, implicitly suggesting the people in charge are operating with a fatal deficiency of intelligence and common sense.

There’s nothing new in the workplace that escapes this critic’s eyes, and they are comfortable sharing their caustic commentary with anyone below the management level. Like moths to a flame, they seem to thrive on the negative work-talk, engaging anyone who will listen. 

Effective managers work quickly to stop these characters before the damage to morale spreads and threatens the team’s working environment. But, as with every management situation, there are right and wrong approaches for handling difficult people. These tips will help you find the best way to deal with chronic complainers. 

Don’t Minimize the Potential Damage

These not-so-silent saboteurs, operating mostly below the management levels of the organization, are like that slow drip from the leaky water pipe in the ceiling. The drops of water don’t do much damage at first, but over time they will create a stain or even bring the whole ceiling down. 

The chronic complainer infects the workplace culture by spreading negativity and creating doubt in the minds of team members. For managers striving to implement a new program or policy, this subtle but aggressive behavior gets in the way of driving positive change. 

Two Approaches to Avoid

When dealing with chronic complainers, there are two common methods:

  1. Attempting to win them over by selling them in advance on your ideas
  2. Ignoring the issue and relegating the steady cadence of complaints to background noise

Both of these approaches are less than ideal. The manager who either ignores or rationalizes the behaviors of this employee is minimizing the cumulative damage from the steady drip of complaints. Instead of rationalizing or excusing the behavior, you should focus on eliminating it. Unfortunately, in attempting to justify the behavior, you damage your credibility with the broader team. 

The manager who goes out of the way to neutralize the complainer by making a direct appeal for support is only playing into this character’s game. In the mind of the complainer, you legitimize them by seeking approval. More often than not, this exacerbates the problem, giving the complainer a chance to brag to others that their approval was actively requested and withheld.

Instead of ignoring the complaining behavior or attempting to assuage the complainer by appealing to their ego, active managers use a direct approach by coaching first, counseling second, and requiring accountability for behavior each step of the way. 

7 Tips for Dealing With Chronic Complainers

Here are seven steps to changing the culture around complaining in your workplace.

  1. First, set clear expectations for workplace performance and engagement. Often, chronic complainers emerge in environments where standards of performance and behavior are poorly defined and where accountability for actions is not enforced. If your firm has clearly articulated values, make those an integral part of your team’s or department’s culture. If the values aren't clear, work with team members to establish the values they believe are essential for a healthy working environment. 
  2. Teach team members to make their concerns about policies, programs, or activities visible to the broader group. Hold people accountable for proposing and following through on actions to remedy the issues. Establish that it is culturally inappropriate to complain behind the scenes.
  3. Engage and observe. Effective managers focus on both engaging with their team members and observing behaviors in a variety of settings. You cannot coach or offer constructive feedback without the context that comes from observing and engaging. Chronic complainers survive and thrive in environments where the manager tends to operate at a distance, but struggle to gain traction where the manager is closely involved with team members. 
  4. Continually solicit input from your team members on the working environment. Chronic complainers are crafty at remaining below the surface and out of earshot of their managers. However, a manager who is always engaging with all of their team members is able to focus on those individuals and behaviors that detract from morale and performance. Use straightforward approaches and conversations as well as formal surveys and 360-degree reviews to build a body of evidence on the group and individual performance. 
  5. Offer timely, clear feedback and coaching to chronic complainers. Once you’ve gained context for the complaints of a team member, it is critical to engage quickly and constructively with the individual. Focus initially on coaching the person by providing insight into how constant complaining erodes the working environment. Demonstrate how the behavior affects performance and morale. Indicate the damage to the complaining individual’s career and showcase positive ways to offer critical input on programs, policies, or activities in the workplace. 
  6. Recognize when it is time to escalate. If behaviors do not change, it's time to move from coaching to counseling. ​Coaching is designed to elicit positive change in behaviors by offering guidance, encouragement, and specific action steps. Counseling offers clear feedback that the behaviors are unacceptable and identifies the implications of failing to change the behavior. Work with your human resources manager to structure a counseling session. Be sure to provide documentation on all of the prior feedback and coaching. Gain support for presenting the employee with a performance improvement program that clearly defines the outcomes should the employee fail to improve. And, as always, follow up. 
  7. Don’t hesitate to get the complainers out. Assuming you are working closely with your human resources team and have followed the steps above, you owe it to your team, your firm, and yourself to get toxic people out of the workplace. While chronic complainers seem harmless on the surface, the damage may become irreparable in the long run.

Building a Healthy Work Environment

Creating an environment where motivated employees are encouraged and given the freedom to do their best work is job one for every manager. It starts with hiring the right people and continues with creating a culture of accountability for negative behaviors, including identifying and remedying problems. There’s no room for chronic complainers in a healthy workplace.