Do you have someone on your team who always seems to have a little personal storm cloud hovering overhead? You know who I mean: the person who inevitably responds to an exciting initiative by criticizing or complaining. I don’t know about you, but I really struggle to deal with a complainer, or a cynic, or a negative Nestor. So today’s topic is a challenge, but one I’m willing to accept! Without further ado: How do I deal with a complainer?
Let’s Walk a Mile
I’m a pretty chipper person most of the time. I’ve been known to respond to a sales clerk’s “how are you today?” with “I’m supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” So I can’t say I relate to the complainer. But I’ve had lots of opportunity to talk with, listen to, and try to understand complainers in my role as a team effectiveness advisor. I’ve learned some interesting things about them.
Let’s start by walking a mile in the moccasins of the complainer.
They Don’t Mean to Be Negative
Although it might seem otherwise, complainers DO NOT set out to be disruptive and they certainly don’t mean to be bad guys. The complainer’s cloudy disposition likely stems from a cocktail of their genes, their personality, their upbringing, and their circumstances. It is likely a fundamental part of who they are and an incredibly difficult thing to change.
They Don’t Know They’re Being Negative
I had a colleague who seemed dissatisfied the vast majority of the time. She would point out the flaws rather than the potential in anything or anyone. One day, we shared a long car ride where she confided that she couldn’t help herself from trying to make things better. She rejected the label of being a complainer, which she found hurtful. She believed she was a very positive person and what better way to make a positive contribution than by pointing out what was wrong and how to make it better. I kinda’, sorta’ got what she was saying.
They Get Rewarded for Being Negative
The other unfortunate thing about complainers (or more aptly, the unfortunate thing about how we handle complainers) is that we often reward their complaining by allowing their complaints to change the outcome. So if you’re a complainer, why stop? Complaining works!
How to Handle the Complainer
While I urge you to try to understand and empathize with the plight of the complainer, you have an obligation to manage the negative impact he has on your team and on you.
For sake of simplicity, let’s use an example of sharing the plans for a new office design. As soon as you share your beautiful new office, the complainer immediately points out one of the minor downsides of the plan.
Here’s what you can try.
Reinforce the Good Bits
Hidden beneath the moaning and complaining is usually something worth noting. As a manager, you have to tread that fine line to acknowledge the worthy point without encouraging the unsavoury delivery method. You have a few options:
Mini-feedback: One option is to give a nugget of feedback right in the moment that makes it clear you don’t like the how, but you’re prepared to address the what. “I wish you had phrased that a little more constructively. I take your point about the loss of space in the kitchenette.”
Defer: I was planning on addressing some of the concerns a little later. We’ll come back to the kitchenette then. Let’s go back to how we are going to capitalize on this great new front office space.”
Reframe: Rather than calling out the person’s negatively explicitly, just reflect the constructive part of the comment back with different packaging. “You would like to know how we’re going to use the kitchenette space differently to accommodate the reduction in space.”
Given that the complainer is usually oblivious to her impact, it’s important to provide feedback. Although it’s ok to give a mini-feedback in a group setting, you should save the full feedback for a private conversation. Follow the rules of good feedback and keep the description of her behaviour really objective and save the juicy, subjective language for the impact her behaviour has on you or the team.
Here’s an example. “When I shared the design for the new office layout in the team meeting, you were the first to comment and you chose to focus on the small area we lost in the kitchen space. When you started with one of the few negatives, I found it difficult to get the team to see the positives and to take a balanced perspective on the redesign. This isn’t the first time you have led with a negative comment. How could you help ensure our discussions get off to a constructive start?”
If it continues over time, you might want to amp up the feedback. “In our last three meetings, you have focused your comments on concerns. I am finding myself tuning you out because I interpret it as you complaining without doing anything to make the situation better. If you want my help, I need you to focus on what you can do to make things better. Let’s start over. How could you start the conversation differently this time?”
Ramp up Accountability
The worst offender is the complainer who isn’t willing to take any accountability for making things better. Don’t tolerate it. If an employee complains, redirect their energy to making things better. “I hear your concern about the changes to the kitchenette space, I’d like you to share your thoughts with the designers and propose some ways to optimize the space we have.”
While you might be enlightened and understand that each one of us has a deliberate choice of how to show up in the world—your complainer might not be quite there yet. Stick with this formula:
- Start with a positive assumption about the person and the point
- Pull out the useful content and reframe it into something constructive
- Provide private feedback about the impact of the complainers tone or negativity
- Coach the person to focus on different things or to deliver their message differently to have a more positive impact
- Tie complaints to action so the complainer learns only to complain when he is willing to take some accountability for making things better
I know it can be exhausting, but this formula will help you coach the complainer into a more positive person to be around. And remember what my colleague told me, complaining was her way of helping to change things for the better.