How Can Leaders Manage a Chronic Complainer?

Almost everyone has experienced having to work with or lead a constant complainer. Working with a person who seems never to have a nice thing to say or is constantly pointing out every situation’s negatives can be exhausting. Leaders know that this complaining is toxic and often contagious, causing other employees also to become negative and become chronic complainers. Constant complaining keeps people focused on the negative, causing stress that can shrink part of the brain and reduce the capacity for doing great work. How can leaders manage a chronic complainer to improve their view and maintain a positive and productive workplace? 

  1. Understand the complainer. First, it is important to evaluate if this is a sudden change in attitude caused by extenuating circumstances. Is the complainer upset about recent changes at work, or perhaps problems at home? Occasional venting and expression of frustration are normal and healthy. If this co-worker used to be more optimistic, it might be time to check in with them and see if there is a problem that can be solved or managed more effectively. However, if the complaints seem to be a consistent personality trait, leaders will need to take a different approach. Chronic complainers will have difficulty seeing the bright side of any situation and react poorly to being told to be “more positive.” The motivations of a chronic complainer can vary; it may be a way to exercise power and influence, or it could be a deeply ingrained pattern of behavior that has become part of their identity. 
  2. Listen and Empathize. The first strategy to attempt with complainers is to listen to what they have to say and empathize with their feelings. Some complainers want to be heard and have their feelings validated. Sometimes hearing them out and responding with a statement like, “If I were in your place, I would feel the same way.” While this won’t work for everyone, it can sometimes short-circuit the complainer’s need to keep repeating their negative messages. 
  3. Provide some perspective. Sometimes negative people just need a shift in perspective. Often a complainer has a very narrow view of the problems at hand and doesn’t see the bigger picture because of their mental state. For example, if the employee is complaining about a workplace policy they don’t agree with, leaders can explain a bigger picture of why the policy is in place and why it is for the greater good. Reframing situations can help the complainer think about other people’s perspectives and start to change the nature of the dialogue. 
  4. Ask the complainer for solutions. Sometimes, a complainer is motivated by a lack of control or influence over a problem. Ask them how they would solve the issues if they were in charge or what they would change if they could. If they are serious about making positive changes, they might have some great ideas that are getting lost in the constant complaints. 
  5. Set Boundaries. Sometimes a chronic complainer cannot be managed out of their behavior. In that case, it is best to set boundaries about what is tolerable in professional conversations. Leaders can acknowledge the complainer’s frustrations but point out that repetitive complaints are not helpful or productive. It can also be helpful to create a policy that anyone bringing a complaint to the table, should also have a proposed solution. 
  6. Suggest Professional Coaching. While this can be delicate territory, suggesting professional or life-coaching services or reminding the complainer about available counseling services from an Employee Assistance Program can be a great option. Chronic complaining and negativity can be a sign of a bigger personal issue that could be improved or resolved with a professional’s help. Investing in professional development programs focusing on emotional intelligence could also be key to inspiring a change in perspective and behavior. 

About Crestcom International, LLC.

Crestcom International, LLC is an international leadership development organization, training more than one million leaders for 25,000 businesses in over 60 countries across the globe. Crestcom achieves this through a blend of live-facilitated multimedia video, interactive exercises, and shared learning experiences. Crestcom implements action plans and coaching accountability sessions to ensure measured development in key leadership competency areas. For more information, please contact your local Crestcom representative found here.