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What is it about complaining that is so enticing and traps some people more than others? We all work with colleagues who complain, and there are some who keep at it no matter what. But why? And what can you do to keep it from impacting your own morale?
People complain at work for many reasons. They may be bored, feeling under-valued, or simply uninterested in doing the work that is in front of them. They might feel they’ve been wronged or even betrayed by the institution or their boss. These emotions are strong, and many people don’t handle them well.
Moreover, if their behavior is persistent, then that means they have a firm habit of complaining—in the Harvard Business Review, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries notes, “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…. overtime, complainers become negativity addicts, attracted to the drama that comes with a complaining attitude.”
This means that your best efforts to help a negativity addict problem solve and avoid getting stuck in a cycle of complaining may have little effect—they’ll be back at it soon enough. So, what to do? Let that chronic complainer hi-jack your meetings and squash your ideas? No—first, seek to understand them first.
Then, figure out how to interact with them on your terms. They’ve chosen to come to you to air their grievances, , so you get to determine when and for how long they can take up your time. Here’s how to set boundaries with a constant complainer at work.
Interrupt to bring awareness to their behavior
The next time that chronic complainer comes to you with their gripes, interrupt them and ask them what the goal of the conversation is. Your intent needn’t be to antagonize them; but encourage them to consider solutions to their problems: to figure out what they need or what they’re trying to accomplish. Interject and say, “Before you go further, what do you want out of this conversation? Do you need me to help you problem solve, or just listen?” Be candid that you want to get on the same page with them before they continue, so that the conversation is a productive one. Don’t worry about being perceived as unprofessional for interrupting. Your response is warranted because it sets expectations for the conversation by identifying its purpose.
Here’s why interrupting can be beneficial: Often, people who engage in a persistent behavior are unaware of how persistent it is. It may feel normal to them, a habit that emerged without them realizing it. An interruption helps them hit pause, consider the purpose of their actions, and maybe become more self-aware. The first step toward changing behavior is gaining an awareness of it. Interrupting the pattern may help a persistent complainer do that.
Put structure around complaining
There is always time in the day to complain, so it can be helpful to put some structure to it. Some teams I work with have a weekly 10-15 minute meeting just for complaining. They “get it all out” during a set time and then get back to work. This complaint-fest also invites a sense of levity and and playfulness, which can actually help colleagues bond around their shared frustrations.
Time limits help too. How long are you willing to listen? Maybe it’s 5 minutes, maybe it’s 15 minutes. A former colleague kept an egg timer in her office. If someone came to complain to her, she set it for 10 minutes and told them to continue. They had to keep talking while the timer ticked along. Many people thought it was rude of her to do this, but most simply stopped going to her to complain. In her words, “My strategy worked!”
Another way to put structure to complaining is by coupling it with something positive. One team I’ve worked with called it “Complaints and Kudos.” They intentionally set aside time to complain, but during the same time, they also shared their successes. This team struck a balance with complaining by recognizing that some things at work are indeed annoying, frustrating, stressful, and worthy of complaints. But there are (hopefully) also a lot of good things happening too.
Complaining at and about work isn’t inherently bad. Sometimes it can serve a purpose, helping teams to build camaraderie. If you work with a persistent complainer, consider that. Maybe they are seeking a sense of belonging. But if the complaining is impacting you, you must take control of the situation. Your own productivity and effectiveness may depend on it.