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  • Teresa McKee

Supervising the Chronic Complainer

Just as with all repetitive thoughts, the brain goes through a neural “rewiring,” which reinforces thought patterns. So when someone is caught up in negative, sad, angry, and powerless feelings, these neurotransmitters make it easier for unhappy thoughts to repeat themselves, 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.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Supervising a chronic complainer can be challenging, but it's important to handle the situation in a professional and empathetic manner. The goal is to understand where they are coming from and to help them feel empowered to solve their own problems; handling the situation in a way that is respectful and professional, while also maintaining your own emotional well-being.

If an employee is a chronic complainer, it can impact the workplace and create a negative atmosphere. Here are some steps that a manager or supervisor can take to address this situation:

  • Listen and acknowledge: Schedule a private meeting to allow the person to speak their frustrations, and acknowledge their feelings. Let them know that you hear and understand their concerns. Use compassionate communication to discuss the impact that their behavior may be causing in the workplace.

  • Provide some perspective: Complainers usually have a very narrow view of the problems at hand and can’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 the bigger picture of why the policy is in place and why it is for the greater good. Reframing situations and shifting perspective can help the complainer begin to see things differently and start to change the nature of their behavior and demeanor.

  • Set boundaries: If you still can’t get through to your complainer, make it clear that excessive and non-constructive complaining is not an acceptable behavior in the workplace. Outline potential consequences should the behavior continue. Be sure to use compassionate language.

  • Offer 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. If the employee can feel empowered to solve the problem on their own, or offer solutions for you to take action on, they may not need to get their power from complaining. Encourage them to take action when and if appropriate.

  • Change the subject: If the person continues to complain, gently steer the conversation in a different direction. What a lot of chronic complainers seek out is affirmation that they are right in their view. If you see the conversation going down a path that doesn’t feel constructive, changing the subject may be your best option.

  • Practice empathy: Put yourself in the person's shoes and try to understand why they are complaining. Has this behavior only just begun? Something may be going on with the employee that is causing them to act out. While personal problems are not work problems, it is important to understand that our employees are people outside of the workplace and their personal lives can definitely affect their behavior. Empathy for your employees can help to build rapport and reduce conflict.

  • Be patient: Chronic complainers often struggle with negative thought patterns, and it may take time for them to change their behavior. Be patient and understanding. Habits can be hard to break.

  • Discourage office gossip: As stated before, a chronic complainer feels powerless and seeks to gain support (and thus power) by getting other workers to agree with their point of view. And in order to do this, much of the dialogue tends to be loaded with emotion and lacking facts. If you see workers congregating and appearing to gossip, just gently interrupt the conversation with something positive to shift the energy.

  • Document the behavior: Keep a record of the employee's complaining behavior, including the frequency and nature of the complaints.

  • Follow up: Check in with the employee periodically to see if there has been any improvement in their behavior and address any continued complaining as necessary.

  • Seek support: If the situation becomes too difficult to manage on your own, consider seeking support from a supervisor or HR representative.

All employees, including supervisors, deserve to thrive in a positive workplace. Recognizing behavior like chronic complaining that has the potential to turn the workplace into a toxic environment is critically important to morale and well-being. These tips can help you keep your workplace positive and productive for everyone.


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