In an ideal world, people would spend more time solving problems than kvetching about them. But the real world, unfortunately, contains many people who would rather complain rather than take action.

Complainers don't just waste their own time; they also consume the time of the other people (including you) who end up listening to their complaints. Complainers also spread a toxic negativity, making it more difficult for everyone to get their jobs done.

Simple "tuning out" complainers is good advice, but difficult to implement--particularly in today's open work environments. If you're the boss, you've got to get complainers back on track before they poison the work environment.

Here's a step-by-step method:

1. Schedule a Conversation

If a known complainer (you know who they are) comes into your work area and indicates that he or she wants to talk, do not interrupt what you're doing in order to have the conversation.

Instead, explain that you do want to hear what the person has to say, but that you can't give the matter the attention it deserves while your mind is on your current task. Schedule a specific time in the not-too-distant future.

There are several advantages to doing this.

  • It limits the impact of the complainer on your own productivity.
  • It prevents the complainer from using your "sympathetic ear" as a way to avoid doing his or her own work.
  • It conveys respect for the complainer and a willingness to listen ... at the appropriate time.

When the scheduled time rolls around, there's a chance the complainer has been distracted by something else. If so, problem solved. But if not, go on to the next step.

2. Set the Agenda

Start the scheduled conversation with this question: "As we discuss this, do you want me to suggest solutions or do you just need to vent for a while?"  This question is essential for three reasons:

  • It recognizes the fact that some people can't begin to think about a solution until they've complained about the problem for a while.
  • It establishes that there is probably a solution to whatever the complainer is complaining about, even if this isn't the right time to surface it.
  • It sets a time limit for the complaining, thereby making certain that it doesn't become a productivity-gobbling black hole.

3. Listen & Nod

When somebody is complaining, the best strategy is listen and to communicate that you've heard what the complainer has to say. Even if the complaints seem ridiculous and pointless, do not roll your eyes, fidget, or check your email.  Instead, nod your head and say things like, "I hear you," or, "That must be really tough."

In most cases, complainers wear themselves out in five minutes or less, unless you're stupid enough to add fuel to the fire by suggesting a solution. Don't: At this point, you'll always get a response like, "But that won't work because ..." and the complaining will last that much longer.

Remember, complainers above all need to feel that they're being heard.  They usually know already what they need to do to address the problem--but can't motivate themselves to take action it until they've moaned about it for a while.

4. Offer Your Perspective

Once the complainer has vented and wound down, ask: "Did it help to get that off your chest?"  Whether the answer is "yes," "no," or "sort-of" is irrelevant.  What you're establishing with this question is that you've listened to the complaint in order to help the complainer.

Therefore, the complainer now owes you.  That's both good and appropriate, because it's hard work to listen to complainers.

Now ask: "Do you want my perspective on the situation?"  If the answer is "no," let the matter drop, secure in the knowledge that, by listening, you've done what's possible to help the complainer get back on track.  End the conversation.

If the answer is "yes," phrase your advice from your own perspective. Say something like: "If I were in your situation, I might try ..."  That way, if the complainer starts up again with reasons it won't work, you simply say, "Well, that's what I'd try."  End the conversation and get back to work.

5. If Necessary, Take Corrective Action

The above four steps work with 95% of the world's complainers, allowing them to get back to doing real work within a few minutes.  However, if an employee or co-worker is constantly complaining, there two possibilities.

First, the complainer may be having emotional or mental problems that are spilling over into the workplace. If so, the complainer's manager (or HR manager, if one exists) should suggest that the complainer get counseling and/or medical assistance.

Second, there may be an insurmountable mismatch between the complainer and his or her job.  In this case, the only solution--for the good of the organization and the complainer alike--is reassignment or termination.

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