Editor's note: In this new column for Inc.com, Alison Green will be answering questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor. Here's our inaugural letter, from a reader asking about managing a team that never seems to stop complaining:
I was hired to manage a team of fairly experienced salespeople. I originally was a manager of a different line and left for a better opportunity, but I returned for a promotion as sales coordinator. I knew the team already and had a respect built with them.
But now that I am their boss, they are constantly whining and complaining and irritated about the department. From stock issues to the pay rate to the fairness of the department's managers to bonus amounts, it never ends. I am exhausted from saying "think positive" and "stay focused." I have tried firm talks, patient listening, enthusiastic support and encouragement, and partnering with other managers for support. I am slowly losing patience.
As a boss, I have given them every available resource to ensure success. I have rewarded success, put a positive spin on failure, built them up to superiors. I guess my point is, I am trying to keep the emotion out of it and to focus on the facts, but when I get home, I could cry, because I am totally beat up and exhausted from trying to find ways to improve sales and stop the negative whining, complaining, bitterness, and just keep going forward with the business. What approach am I missing?
It sounds like you're missing a key fact here: You are their boss. Ultimately, you set the standards for what flies and what doesn't, and you are able to set and enforce consequences. You don't have to rely on cajoling and hoping that you can persuade them to come around.
To be clear, you want your staff to come to you with concerns, and you should hear them out with an open mind. And if you think their complaints are reasonable, it's important to do what you can to resolve the issues, including sharing them with people above you if you don't have the power to address them yourself. But from what you write, this is long past that point; you're dealing with a never-ending stream of complaints that's past the point of being productive.
You need to make clear that chronic whining and complaining isn't going to fly on your team. Let them know you will hear them out once about a concern. But you won't allow them to poison your team's environment by complaining about those same items over and over; these items should be one-time conversations, not ongoing ones.
If team members continue to indulge in chronic complaining after you establish these boundaries, then you have to address it head-on. Explain to them (individually, not as a group) that the things they're frustrated by aren't going to change, that you can't be constantly battling over them, and that they need to decide whether they can be happy in their jobs knowing that, because continuing to complain about the same things is not an option.
It sounds like you want to be nice to people, which is great--but nice can't be allowed to trump your fundamental duties as a manager, which include laying out clear standards of behavior, expecting people to meet those standards, warning them when they're falling short, and taking action when warnings don't work.
Ultimately, this will come down to how comfortable you are with your authority. Do you have the authority to transition out people who aren't working well? Are you willing to use that authority? Assuming so, act with the confidence of your position: Lay out your expectations and hold people to them. That doesn't mean firing someone for one or two complaints--but it does mean being firm about what is and isn't acceptable behavior, pointing it out when lines are crossed, and addressing it if there's no improvement. And it's reasonable to decide that being able to focus on the work at hand without dragging down other members of the team is a requirement of the job and that people who don't meet that standard aren't good fits for your team.
Because this is a switch in how you've approached this up until now, getting your tone right is going to be especially important. The tone to strive for is matter-of-fact--not angry, not pleading, not defensive, just matter-of-fact about the idea that the team's behavior has become disruptive and needs to be resolved once and for all. The underlying subtext should be that while you genuinely hope team members will decide to meet the standards and stay, you are willing to let them go if they don't improve.
Keep in mind that it's now your job to address staff behavioral problems and hold employees accountable; you're not being mean by doing that.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.