How to Deal With a Colleague Who Won’t Stop Complaining

What is it about complaints that they are so tempting and trap some people more than others? We all work with colleagues who complain, and there are those who continue to do so, no matter what. But why? And what can you do to keep it from affecting your morale?

People complain at work for many reasons. They may be bored, feel unappreciated, or simply not interested in doing the work that lies ahead of them. They may feel that they have 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, it means that they have a strong habit of complaining – to the Harvard Business Review, as Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries notes – “through the repetition of bad, sad, crazy and powerless feelings, neurotransmitters in the brain.” the brain can go through neural “wiring” that reinforces negative thought patterns, making it easier to repeat unhappy thoughts…. over time, complainers become addicted to the negativity that is attracted to the drama that accompanies dealing with complaints.” This means that all your efforts to help the negativity addict solve the problem and not get stuck in the complaining cycle may have little effect – they will return to this soon enough. So what to do? Let this chronic complainer take over your meetings and crush your ideas? No, first try to understand them.

Then figure out how to interact with them on your terms. They decide to come to you to express their dissatisfaction, so you decide when and how long they can take your time. Here’s how to set boundaries with a constant complainer at work.

Interrupt to draw attention to their behavior

The next time this chronic complainer comes to you with his complaints, interrupt him and ask what the purpose of the conversation is. Your intention should not be to oppose them; but encourage them to think about solutions to their problems: find out what they need or what they are trying to achieve. Insert and say: “Before you go any further, what do you want from this conversation? Do you need me to help you solve a problem or just listen? Be frank that you want to be on the same wavelength with them before they continue, so that the conversation is productive. Don’t worry about being perceived as unprofessional by interrupting. Your answer is justified because it sets expectations for the conversation by defining its purpose.

This is why interrupting can be helpful: often people who engage in assertive behavior don’t realize how assertive they are. It may seem normal to them, a habit that has arisen without their awareness. The interruption helps them pause, reflect on the purpose of their actions, and perhaps become more aware. The first step to changing behavior is becoming aware of it. A persistent complainer may be helped by interrupting the pattern.

Create a structure around complaints

There is always time to complain during the day, so it can be helpful to give it some structure. Some of the teams I work with have weekly 10-15 minute meetings just to complain. They “do everything” for a set time and then get back to work. This holiday of complaining also evokes a sense of flippancy and playfulness that can really help co-workers come closer to their shared frustration.

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 said to continue. They had to keep talking while the timer was ticking. Many people thought it was rude of her, but most simply stopped going to her to complain. According to her, “My strategy worked!”

Another way to structure complaints is to associate them with something positive. One team I worked with called it Complaints and Gratitude. They deliberately set aside time for complaints, but at the same time shared their successes. This team struck a balance with complaining by recognizing that some things at work are really annoying, frustrating, stressful, and worth complaining about. But there is (hopefully) a lot of good stuff too.

Complaining at work and about it is not so bad. This can sometimes serve the purpose of helping teams build camaraderie. If you are working with a persistent complainer, consider this. Maybe they are looking for a sense of belonging. But if complaints affect you, you must take control of the situation. Your own productivity and efficiency can depend on it.


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