Deal Firmly with Chronic Complainers at Work

“Now, 10 years later, the person who talked and complained is still talking and complaining and still remains in the same position. The person who took the initiative and found solutions has been promoted several times.” – Catherine Pulsifer

Work life is arduous and stressful even if things are relatively smooth and streamlined. However, smooth and streamlined are not words that are very often associated with the workplace! There are many factors that could upset the fluidity and in this exposition we are focusing on chronic complainers in the workplace. Every workplace has them – their life’s mission seems to be to remain upset and bring everyone around them down too. For these chronic complainers in the workplace nothing is ever good enough – be it the workplace, the colleagues, food, weather – the list is endless. All these chronic complainers ‘specialize’ in finding something wrong with everything and make every effort to let everyone know about it. Seems harmless right? Wrong. The damaging effects of these chronic complainers cannot and should not be underestimated. They can severely dent their co-worker morale, affect productivity and as a result shrink your company’s profits and bottom line.

This is no way implies that employees must not have the right to speak up or express about what they believe is not right or about things that bother them. It is different in the case of chronic complainers – they have the ability to make everyone around them miserable and stressed and this negativity, as we discussed earlier, is easily spread and reinforced. The worst part about chronic complainers is that if ignored they are even more vocal. It would be highly irresponsible for the team leader/manager/leadership to let such behaviour go unchecked as it could have far reaching and long-lasting impacts on the company as a whole. The continuous whining of chronic complainers can cause a huge disruption in the workplace as the other co-workers lose patience, tempers fly and there are a number of opportunities created for conflict. The viciousness and stress of the workplace will soon affect even the best and most resilient of employees, who will soon find a way to leave the company. With the company’s best talent leaving, it won’t be long before customer service levels dip, innovation ceases to exist and product quality nose-dives. How long do you think your customers will remain with you if this becomes the status quo of your company?

The ironical aspect of chronic complainers is that they believe (till told otherwise) that they are right and are justified in complaining and hence are not spreading any negativity. They rather believe that they are ‘victims’ and that they are being ‘short-changed’ all the time and all they are doing is voicing their displeasure of these uncomplimentary and rather ‘trying’ circumstances that they ‘alone’ are facing. It is the duty of their co-workers, managers and leaders of the company to provide feedback and or take strict action to deter this kind of attitude within the company. When these complaints receive any kind of support or validation, they become even more convinced of the ‘correctness’ of the chronic complaining. The fact is the chronic complainers are always emotionally charged and trying to reason with them, would always be met by more highly strung emotions that soon become difficult to contain and in fact begin to negatively affect everyone around. From experience you would know that ‘if it is right for one person, it must be right for me too’ – this mind-set spreads faster than anyone can anticipate and will ultimately cause a landslide of the company’s performance.

Chronic complainers in the workplace and elsewhere thrive on the perception that their lives are riddled with problems – much more than others. They get their identity from their problems and so are not open to suggestions and advice or any kind of talk that might detract from that ‘identity’. The fact is that if their co-workers were to counter their whines, these chronic complainers would see it as an attack on their very being. The most troublesome part of dealing with chronic complainers is that even if the solution offered would most certainly take away the ‘so called problem’ they would refuse to accept it and they could become even more aggressive and unreasonable.

It is therefore important and critical to deal with this annoying breed of employees. Of course, as a manager you do want your team to speak with you about what concerns them and also keep an open mind about their apprehensions. If the complaints seem genuine, within the realms of reason and plausible it is the manager’s duty to take every step to resolve them. However, if and when you perceive that a team member is constantly complaining – most of the time with irrelevant and made up stuff – to a point that this complaining becomes counter-productive you know that you have one of the chronic complainers to deal with.

The manager must remain firm and let the chronic complainers know clearly that the kind of behaviour and attitude that they are displaying will not work as part of the team or in the company. They must be strictly told reminded about the company’s goals and their responsibility in meeting them and also contributing to their own personal growth. They must be provided feedback on how their demeanour is affecting others and that by constantly complaining things will not start working in their favour. The next step is to let them know that the responsibility of maintaining the balance in the team, working cohesively and promoting an environment for high productivity is everyone’s responsibility and that as chronic complainers they are obstructing all these factors. They would need to know that the onus of remaining happy in their job lies with them and chronic complaining will not help them in any way.

As a manager and leader, being nice is probably one part but it cannot and must not undermine your prime responsibilities of forming and keeping a happy and cohesive team that progressively contributes to their own growth and the growth of their company. Chronic complainers must be told that they are not meeting the basic standards of appropriate behaviour and that not making changes to the way they conduct themselves could have serious repercussions for them. We mentioned earlier, that chronic complainers are not easily appeased by reason and when they feel that their ‘identity’ is being ‘stolen’ they tend to panic. You would most likely ‘lose’ this person to another company – which works well for the overall health of the company.

It all boils to how well and appropriately a manager is able to deal with problems and with chronic complainers, who if left unchecked can cause serious problems and affect the overall work environment that can soon build into a tidal wave of negativity and conflict. It is important for those in leadership positions to address every kind of behavioural issues exhibited by their staff and make sure that the errant employee completely understands their responsibility. They must remain firm, polite, professional and firmly grounded such that the chronic complainers clearly understand that they do not have an ally for their behaviour. They will soon move out to somewhere they believe would support their ‘rightful’ cribbing.

It is easy to get sucked into debate and arguments. However, the manager must remain positive yet strict while enforcing the kind of behaviour expected. The way to attempt to ‘kill’ the destructive habits of chronic complainers, especially known ones, is to refrain from engaging in long conversations with them but rather laying down the rules which they would need to comply with. Agreed, it seems easier said than done – but the fact is that chronic complainers should become a ‘dying breed’ by dealing with them firmly and sternly before they take their co-workers and the company down.

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