How to Captalise on Complaining Employees

There are genuine complaints – based on valid points of view, considered and aimed at the betterment of all.

And then, there are individuals, who complain instead of taking responsibility and doing something about their concerns.

Such individuals emit low intensity, high frequency complaints that are a substitute for genuine thought. They are quick to make value judgments with incomplete understanding of a situation.

In terms of being engaged, they are highly engaged; it’s just their high levels of participation are self-centred; they’re amazingly creative around finding the negative in everything.

Beware: There be 'Black Holes'

These people are energetic black holes - they drain energy, both yours and the team's.

So what to do about them?

There is the simple dictum of ‘Train. Transfer. Terminate.’

Try training them, if that doesn’t work, transfer them to somewhere where they will be better suited. And if that doesn’t work (or is not possible) terminate.

What follows are my three suggestions that fit into the ‘Train’ phase.

  1. Ask turnaround questions. They are complaining because they have a picture of how they want the situation to be (and that is not happening). So say to them “I can tell by your complaint that you are not happy. That tells me you have a clear picture of how you’d like it to be. Can you tell me about that?” Get a very clear picture of their picture – it will force their attention to change and clarify matters for you. Then you can ask, “So, how can we move towards this?
  2. Help the employee see a broader picture. For example the employee might say: "I am so tired of dealing with so and so." Your response might be: "I agree it can be difficult, but let’s take a moment to put yourself in their shoes, to see where they’re coming from?" or "Yep that can be tough, but isn't it nice to have a customer like so and so that helps us pay our bills?"
  3. Create a "Working Together" agreement up front with the team. One crucial conversation within this is a discussion of all the things that could ‘kill our team’ (i.e. this is a pre-mortem process).  Follow this by identifying agreed behaviours of what ‘fits’ and ‘doesn’t fit’. Now you have a clarity of expectations.  In this way  complaining can be addressed before hand. For me this has been one of the most effective ways to deal with whining in a team.

General Rule of Thumb

The Rule of Thumb is, if in doubt – LISTEN. If you want middle and top performers to continue to perform at your expectations listen, listen, listen to what they are telling you. They are your eyes and ears of your organisation. They see everything first.

Actively listen to their issues and seek real clarity. Then assist them with identifying solutions to fix it. If any employee doesn’t see results, they will continue to complain or constantly bring it up until it is solved either by themselves (which you may not agree with) or by someone else in the organization.

How do you deal with chronic complainers?

I would love hear your personal stories and tips. I welcome your comments and input.