Dealing with a Chronic Complainer in the Workplace: Best Practices

Employees Gossiping
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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. They seem to thrive on the negative work-talk and are like moths to light with 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. And like every management situation, there are right and wrong approaches for dealing with difficult people. These tips will help you find the best approach to deal with chronic complainers. 

Don’t Minimize the Potential Damage From Chronic Complainers

These not-so-silent saboteurs operating mostly below the management levels of the organization are comparable to that slow drip from the leaky water pipe in the ceiling. For a while, the drops of water don’t do much damage, but over time, they are capable of creating a stain or even bringing the ceiling down. 

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

Avoid These Two Approaches to Dealing With the Chronic Complainers

Two methods commonly applied to dealing with chronic complainers include:

  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. I’ve lost count of the number of managers I’ve heard utter a phrase that sounds something like: "That’s just (name). He’s harmless. He doesn’t like anything new, but he always comes around to supporting the program.

The manager who either ignores or rationalizes the behaviors of this employee is ignoring the cumulative damage from the steady drip of complaints. Instead of rationalizing or excusing the behavior, she should focus on eliminating it. Unfortunately, in attempting to justify the behavior, she’s damaging her credibility with her broader team. 

The manager who goes out of his 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, the manager has legitimized him/her by seeking approval. More often than not, this exacerbates the problem, with the complainer now able to brag to others that his/her approval was actively requested and withheld.

Instead of ignoring the complaining behavior or attempting to assuage the individual by appealing to his/her 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

  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 environment. If the values are not present, 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 thru 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 or positive 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 and 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 to understand how things are going, 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. I encourage managers to focus initially on coaching the person by providing insight into the destructive nature of constant complaining in the working environment. Tie the behavior to the impact it has on performance and morale. Indicate the damage to the complaining individual’s career, and showcase positive approaches to offering critical input on programs, policies, or activities in the workplace. 
  6. Recognize when it is time to escalate. If behaviors do not change, it is time to move from coaching to counseling. ​Coaching is designed to elicit positive change in behaviors by offering guidance, encouragement and specific, actionable feedback. 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. Make certain to provide documentation on all of the prior feedback and coaching. Gain support for presenting the employee with a performance improvement program that has implications if performance fails to improve. And then 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, remember the example of the leaky water pipe! 

The Bottom Line

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 positive behaviors, including identifying and remedying problems. There’s no room for chronic complainers in a healthy workplace.