Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain. - Lily Tomlin
Every office has at least one: the worker who spends most of her working hours whining about how bad things are. And not just about work (at least the whining would be relevant.) She whines about her family, her kids, her commute, the cashier at the grocery store last night… the list seems endless. If she just spent as much time doing her work as she does complaining about it, she’d have been promoted to director by now.
According to Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner, authors of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, there are three kinds of complainers in the workplace: helpful, therapeutic, and obnoxious. Helpful complainers bring you problems, but they also have ideas on how to fix the issue. They bring up problems because they care about getting things right, and they assume that you do, too.
Therapeutic complainers need to get something off their chest, and we can all relate to that. A little whining every once in a while can prevent a major blowup later. It’s the obnoxious complainers that really get under our skin; the people who interrupt productive workers to talk about problems they have no intention of solving.
Drs. Rick and Rick have a list of behaviors that absolutely won’t work when faced with a chronic complainer. Don’t agree with them, they write; you’ll only validate their complaint and perpetuate the cycle. Don’t disagree with them, either – they will simply repeat the story (with more embellishments) until you agree that they are justified in their complaint. Many of us fall into the third trap: trying to solve the problem for the complainer. That never works, because a solution is not the answer.
Whiners tend to feel powerless in the face of a problem. I love the psychological term for people who stay focused on the negative: rumination. In a cow, rumination is the process of bring up previously chewed grass for a second time to get all of the nutritional value from it. Psychologists use the same term for people who obsess over negative events, staying focused for long periods on what went wrong and why. They often take a specific incident (“the boss interrupted me in the meeting”) and generalize it (“the boss doesn’t ever listen to what I have to say.”)
When trying to help a whiner at work, you’ll need to form when Drs. Rick and Rick refer to as a Problem-Solving Alliance. Whiners feel that they can’t solve problems, and your only hope of helping them is to help them see possible solutions. That, unfortunately, means actually tuning in to their complaints, instead of tuning out as you’d prefer to do.
Once you seem to have a handle on the main points of the problem, you must firmly but gently interrupt the woeful monologue. Ask about specific incidents, even though it may take a while to get the whiner out of his generalizing mode. Have patience. Your dialogue may go something like this:
“Who doesn’t give you the respect you deserve?”
“Well, the project managers.”
“Who, among the project managers?”
“Well, mostly Pete. He’s the one who said that my last report was unreadable.”
Aha. Pete said that your report wasn’t up to par. (The authors say that you may find it helpful to think of this process like an archeological dig; dust off layer after layer until you find treasure.)
Next, you can ask a question that will be revolutionary to the whiner: What is it that you want? Seriously, the whiner may have never thought in these terms before. It simply may not occur to him that he can change the way things are.
In the case of Pete the mean project manager, you may learn that the whiner simply wants to be acknowledged for his effort on a difficult job. You can suggest that he speak to Pete about his feedback and ask for his help on making the reports more accessible and useful. Paint a picture of the future: Pete giving him pointers about how to make his reports better, and actually asking to work with him on future projects.
Action-based solutions may not work right away, but you now have a basis for turning away the whiner. “I value our working relationship, but your negative attitude is hurting the team. You don’t have to take action to fix this (as we discussed) of course, but I don’t want to hear about this anymore unless you’ve at least tried to fix it.” This gentle but firm approach will work for both your direct reports and for peers.
Eventually, if you hold firm with your refusal to listen, your whiner will either go off and try the solution, or move on to someone more sympathetic. Either way, you win some peace and quiet for a while.