Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
How do I handle a constant complainer? I have an employee who has worked for the company for thirty years. She’s a great employee but is always complaining—mainly about all the recent changes. I believe she feels she can say anything because she’s worked for the company so long. How do I tactfully tell her how much she complains without losing her as an employee?
Tired of Complaints
Dear Tired of Complaints,
Constant complaining can be such a drag—a drag on morale, a drag on attempts to problem solve, and a drag on good working relationships.
How do you confront a constant complainer without damaging your working relationship? Let’s start with what you don’t do:
Don’t focus on Attitude: “You’re always so negative.”
Don’t focus on Character: “You have a rotten attitude.”
Rather, factually describe the behavior pattern you’re observing and how it differs from your expectations—describe the gap between the two. For example, “Hi Joanne, can I talk to you about something? In last week’s meeting I announced a new schedule and you said, ‘This schedule stinks! Who came up with it, a bunch of first graders?’ The week before that, when I talked about the new inventory system, you said you liked the old way just fine and that this would just make everyone’s lives harder…”
After giving several behaviorally specific examples, compare these examples with your expectations. For example, “When you have a specific concern, I would rather have you talk it over with me, and then we can figure it out together, instead of you criticizing the change and the people who are making it.”
Then ask a diagnostic question to understand what the other person is thinking. For example, “What’s going on? Help me understand.”
Your challenge now becomes to listen—not to push your point or argue. Don’t get sucked into discussing a single incident; focus on the pattern of complaining. Are these episodes symptoms of a deeper problem? Is there a relationship problem? Is this person just resistant to trying new ways of doing her work?
The most likely direction this confrontation will take is that you will explore the consequences of your employee’s behavior with her. Understanding consequences helps individuals to see and understand the bigger picture and recognize how their behavior affects others. Exploring consequences could help motivate your employee to change the way she addresses issues. An example might be, “I’ve noticed when you criticize a new procedure, others on the team are less likely to cooperate. That makes it a lot more difficult to get things done.”
The types of consequences to explore might include consequences to fellow team members, to you, to other stakeholders, as well as to the task to be performed.
If you see defensiveness on your employee’s part, make it safe for her by sharing your good intention. For example: “I’m not trying to pick on you or make your life more difficult. I’m just trying to build a strong team and get things done in the most effective way possible.”
This approach does not guarantee any specific outcome. However, this approach can be the means of raising a tough subject while minimizing defensiveness and helping another understand the consequences of his or her behavior and perhaps be motivated to change.
Best of luck,