Time to Embrace the Complainer

February 10, 2014 Ren Wiebe

Workplace ComplainersWe've all worked with that teammate who feels like a wet blanket, too often complaining that the sky is falling or bringing up past beefs endlessly and unconstructively. 

Over time, we tend to ignore the complainer – in large part because he isn't a ton of fun to be around. He pokes at old grievances about what isn’t working without ever seeming to recognize or build on the learnings from them, get past them and move on.

In meetings, we collectively roll our eyes and think “here we go again” when she opens her mouth.

As complainers notice others' dismissiveness or fail to get the rise they want, they often become even more shrill and outspoken.

It’s time for each of us to learn how to celebrate and embrace the complainer! While complainers can be a major drag on team morale, they often bring forward issues that really do need to be addressed. The problem is that we start to devalue what they say because of how they say it and how often they are on the soapbox.

What complainers often need most is an acknowledgement that their ideas have merit and a chance to do something productive about it. They need permission to take ownership for tackling the complaint.

Here are some simple ways that you can make the complainer feel heard, valued and do something of value:

  1. Listen better when she opens her mouth. Make it a personal goal to look for that time when you agree with her complaint about what isn’t working. This will take effort because of how little we all enjoy being wrapped in a wet blanket.
  2. When you hear something you agree with, push yourself to agree publicly and to name the impact the issue is having on team results. The complainer surely feels lonely a lot of the time and will be shocked that he isn't standing alone on at least one issue.
  3. Get her talking about what a better future might look like. Get her to describe how things would be better if the project management process was improved, if the new software was installed, if the policy change was communicated differently. Draw her out; get her to paint a picture …. and help her when her brush runs a bit dry. Remember, she won’t be used to talking about the preferred future.
  4. Ask about his willingness to tackle the issue. Ask about the resources it would take to make it happen. If he hasn’t got a ready answer, encourage him to think about it and bring forward a recommended approach. Better yet, offer to help if he wants your support.

Some complainers won’t step up to the challenge, but many will. They just need a sign that they aren’t alone, the permission to do something about it, and some help taking the first steps. Help them add more value than just pointing out what’s wrong by finding and implementing solutions to make things right. That wet blanket might just turn into a topnotch problem-solver.

About the Author

Ren Wiebe

Ren Wiebe is a Associate Consultant with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions. Prior to joining Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge, Ren spent 7 years working in progressive finance roles in the real estate development sector, where he was responsible for managing public offerings of commercial properties. He managed teams and soon discovered his passion for developing people.

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