What is it about complaining that is so enticing and traps some people more than others? We all work with colleagues who complain, and it can quickly become toxic. The complaints breed negativity and hold many back from solving problems and being productive.
There is a reason for it, and we can blame our brains:
“Through the repetition of bad, sad, mad and powerless feelings, the neurotransmitters in the brain can go through a neural “rewiring,” which reinforces negative thought patterns, making it easier for unhappy thoughts to repeat themselves and leaving little room for the more positive feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and well-being. A continuous cycle of negative thoughts may even cause damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning. Over time, complainers become negativity addicts, attracted to the drama that comes with a complaining attitude.” (Kets de Vries, Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2021)
This explains why it is so hard to stop the complaining and pivot into more productive conversation.
There are countless reasons for excessive complaining. Such as, the person may legitimately have a terrible job or boss, maybe they have no one who will supportively listen, or maybe they have never learned to productively manage difficult emotions. It is not uncommon to feel frustration, anger, disappointment, or even betrayal at work, especially in high stress environments. Handling these emotions productively is a learned skill built over time. If someone has never learned (either through observation or instruction via a parent, boss, mentor, coach, therapist, etc.), then it is easy to get hooked on complaining.
Therefore, telling someone how to feel by saying “look on the bright side” or “be grateful” and attempting to solve their problem by saying “maybe you should…” is unproductive. It likely will not change the way they are handling the negative emotions they are feeling.
Rather, the following strategies may prove more effective at curbing chronic complainers.
Ask What They Need
I worked for a boss 20 years ago who, if we showed up in her office to vent, she would stop us 30 seconds into it and say, “Time out. What do you need right now?” She wanted to understand what was expected by going to her to vent. Did we want her to be a sounding board or help us solve a problem? This also helped her understand what work was involved for her. Did she just need to sit back and listen? Or was there a real issue that required more time and attention.
It also caused us to pause and think about what we were doing. Sometimes we would just slip into griping about something. When she asked us what we needed, many times we would say “Forget it. I’m just complaining” and then stop.
This approach is also helpful for any leader who embraces the “open door” policy. Welcome your team into your office, listen for a bit, and then ask what they need. This will help protect your time and theirs.
What can be most frustrating about complaining is there is no end point. It drags on or loops fostering a continuous conversation that if unchecked, will easily eat up a portion of the day. Setting boundaries helps to create a clear end point.
On one occasion, I told my former boss above that I needed to vent. She said “Great, you have 5 minutes. Let it rip.” I briefly shared with her the context, she agreed it was a crappy situation, and she ended the conversation. 5 minutes was all she allowed for venting. She acknowledged that we all need to vent and there is always a little time in the day to do it. Yet, complaining can never get in the way of the work.
Maybe you’re willing to listen for 10 minutes or 15 minutes. Regardless, set a boundary and communicate it.
You may want to set a boundary for no complaining, at all. Meaning, you are not interested in listening to it unless it is coupled with solutions or ways to resolve it. You might say “I hear you. This is frustrating. To make this conversation productive, what suggestions do you have to resolve it?”
If you are in a leadership position and have staff that complain, set a similar expectation “Complaints alone will not move us forward. I want to hear your frustrations and also want to hear your ideas to resolve them. This means, if you have concerns or run into issues, please also have suggestions to improve the situation.”
Suggest Additional Support
Chronic complainers may need more intentional, professional support than talking with colleagues. If you work with someone who complains excessively, lend a compassionate ear (with boundaries) and suggest to them that they seek more specific support. Many organizations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) with resources available to handle negative emotions and chronic stress. Counselors and therapists are often covered by insurance. Coaches are effective in helping people move forward from challenging situations.
Someone who complains excessively isn’t happy and likely feels powerless to change their circumstances. This means they may benefit from additional support. It is delicate so lead with compassion. It may sound like “I care about your well-being and you have been unhappy about this for some time. We’ve talked about it a lot. Have you considered discussing this with someone external, like using the EAP or hiring a coach? External parties are really helpful in these situations.” If they say no and prefer talking to you, then set clear boundaries.
We all slip into bouts of complaining. It is a natural thing to do, especially in times of stress. It can be helpful to vent, especially to someone who understands our circumstances, the players, and context. Complaining, on a small scale, is not a problem.
Persistent and recurring complaining is a drag on everyone. Helping each other handle it effectively will help our work environments be more productive and supportive.
Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.