Conversation Human Resources Leadership

Coping with complainers at work

We all know at least one chronic complainer. These are the people who truly believe that the whole world out to get them and they have to speak about that loud and clear all the time. They love to complain about everything. You can notice them quite easily, because they tend to use strict qualifiers, such as “they always…”, “they never…”. What’s even worse, they often start conversations by sharing a negative story. “You won’t believe what just happened at a meeting…”, “They are insane…”. This is their favorite technique of getting your attention right away.

The office seems to be a perfect environment for chronic complainers, because it provides plenty of different issues to complain about. Stupid procedures, stupid colleagues, uncomfortable chairs, horrible coffee, boring meetings, and crème de la crème, namely an unfair manager unable to see their struggles.

A chronic complainer is not a pessimist

When somebody is constantly complaining, it’s easy to assume that this person is simply pessimistic. But a pessimist and a chronic complainer are just two sides of the same coin. Some time ago, I heard a great explanation of what the difference between those two kinds of people is. An optimist is a person who sees a glass half full. A pessimist sees a glass half empty. But a chronic complainer sees low-quality tap water which is not cold enough. What’s worse, there’s a smudge on the rim of the glass and this sort of thing always happens to them.

However, having optimists as well as pessimists on a team is a great mix. It can provide you with a wide range of insights, which can lead to better decision-making. It’s good to have more negative opinions, e.g. about a project deadline or its scope. Thanks to that, you can foresee all the bad things that can occur during a project and figure out the best way to prevent them from happening. It’s part of risk management to take care of all negative aspects of any initiative, and it’s extremely valuable.

But chronic complainers complain for the sake of complaining. Instead of looking for solutions, they focus on showing everyone that the whole world is conspiring against them and no one cares about them.

When it comes to your private life, you can avoid chronic complainers and simply not meet them. But it may not be that easy in your professional life. It can be your manager or leader who complains all the time. It may also be your customer or some other person who you simply cannot avoid. In this article, I’m offering you a method of coping with chronic complainers in your workplace. It will allow you to turn a conversation from the negative into the productive.

The situation set-up

Let’s say that you are a leader and one of your coworkers called Robert is a chronic complainer. He bumps into you at the office and starts rambling negatively right away. There is no doubt that this guy is totally mad and he immediately wants to share his thoughts with you. Something has happened and now it’s your turn to listen to his story.

  • You won’t believe what happened to me! They lost their minds.
  • What happened, Robert?
  • They want us to prepare a detailed report every month. Can you believe it? They want every piece of information. That’s ridiculous!
  • What kind of information do they need exactly?
  • I don’t know… Everything. All KPIs, a data analysis and an overview. That’s a huge amount of work. I don’t have the time for that.
  • Who told you so?
  • I was drinking coffee with Mary and she heard it from Adam. It’s not fair. You know it! I have enough on my mind already!

At this moment you have at least a few options. You can stay quiet and just listen to your colleague complain. But that will be a tedious experience for you and it won’t lead either of you anywhere. Especially, if this is not the first time you encounter such a situation. I know it can be tempting to do nothing and just let the other person blab before going away. Unfortunately, it has its drawbacks. Letting a chronic complainer complain for too long can make him or her strengthen their negative thoughts.

You can also cut the conversation short and say “Sorry, Robert, but I need to rush to a meeting”. This is more assertive, but it is also rude. If you’re a leader, such behavior is inappropriate and it will weaken your relations with other colleagues. It’s an evident sign that you don’t care about other people’s problems, let alone solving them.

So what’s the best approach in such a situation? Here are the basic steps you can take to turn drama into a productive conversation and minimize the negative thoughts of your chronic complainer.

#1 Listen

The first step is to listen. No matter if you agree with a person or not, you need to truly listen. And what I mean by that is that you shouldn’t formulate a response while listening. Get rid of this temptation to formulate your thoughts and use 100% of your attention to listen and understand instead. This is an important part which is often mishandled by many leaders. It’s also important not to criticize.

People tend to judge others immediately without letting them share their thoughts freely. As you can expect, it leads to ruining trust and destroying relationships. That’s why you need to make sure not to agree or disagree with people’s thoughts. Just listen, and if needed, ask questions to understand their situation.

There is also another important feature of letting people share their negative thoughts. You need to listen to complainers not only to understand the problem from inside out, but also to let them speak out. Some people turn into chronic complainers, because they don’t feel heard. They complain over and over again, because they wish someone would validate what they say. Sometimes uttering a simple remark, like “I understand your point of view”, can make a huge difference in the way they feel. With the help of true empathy you can change people’s mindset.

One thing you don’t want to do is encourage a person to pretend to be more positive. David M. Long, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the College of William & Mary [1], suggests not to do it, since this technique can only sweep problems under the rug.

“Research on the topic of emotional labor shows that asking people to be positive when they are not is resource-draining for them. People need to be real and authentic, so forced positivity is not the best approach.”

While listening to another person, try to assess whether you’re dealing with an actual chronic complainer. Watch out for phrases like “they always”, “they never”, “it’s unfair”, “everyone”, which are typically used to emphasize how significant the problem is.

Moreover, chronic complainers whine a lot and quite frequently, so if this is not the first time you hear them complain, it may mean you have actually encountered ”the real deal”. All these symptoms will give you a better understanding of what a person wants to achieve. It will help you determine whether the talk is about finding a right solution to the problem or it is just complaining for the sake of complaining.

#2 Ask about the facts

Ok, so you have survived the first part. You have listened truly and understood the problem. You’ve also noticed a few things. Your colleague was overwhelmed by emotions and he couldn’t explain exactly what information they asked him to put in the report. He used an enigmatic expression, such as “everything”, which was probably an exaggeration. Moreover, it’s not clear who made a decision about the new rules. The information is insufficient and based on that you shouldn’t give any opinions yet. It’s too soon.

This is a perfect moment to start reframing the conversation. Try to stay away from unclear gossip and focus on pure facts. Ask your complainer a more specific question, e.g. “What kind of information is needed?”, “Who decided that?”, “When does it come into force?”, etc. This will let you expose whether the news is just a rumor or if it is the truth. If your colleague struggles to answer and you notice his confusion, ask him to look for the facts.

#3 Assign a task

That’s the third part of this method. Don’t focus on problems which may in fact just be gossip. You will waste a lot of time and effort discussing things which might turn out to be untrue. While assigning a task, remember to set up a time to meet with your colleague again for the purpose of discussing the issue and looking for potential solutions. In our specific case with a chronic complainer it could look like this.

Thanks to such a step, you will be able to reframe the situation. You can steer the conversation into a productive session with an action to be taken. Now your colleague will understand that there is no complaining without action. It’s his turn to clarify the situation and get back to you. He will have been assigned a task. This prevents any emotional escalation. His minds will be focused on looking for Adam and gathering information. Well done!

#4 Ask about a potential solution

But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s say that the news turned out to be true. Another manager decided to extend the report by adding more data, which is both complex and time-consuming. When your colleague returns, it’ll be the perfect time to assign him another task. Ask him about possible solutions to the problem.

Explain that you don’t want to hear complaints, because you understand the situation and you see his point of view. That means he will need to spend more time on preparing the monthly report. Be empathic, but also tell him that you expect to hear suggestions to resolve the issue. If a complainer isn’t able to provide at least two options and starts to complain again, stop him and reschedule the meeting so he can figure it out. You can give him some hints, but don’t offer a cut-and-dried solution. Your colleague needs to put some effort into solving the issue and feel that he’s empowered. It’s an important lesson for the future. It turns your chronic complainers into solution finders.

#5 Praise

The last part is to praise complainers for their effort and solutions. It’s another step on the path of turning chronic complainers into productive employees. A simple and sincere compliment can make your working environment happier and more productive. Don’t forget to do that.

In conclusion

All of us complain about one thing or another at times. We tend to share our negative thoughts with our colleagues and people we trust. That’s normal and healthy. But you need to distinguish between the people who are simply in need of attention and those with real problems that require real solutions. Fighting with complainers is all about reframing a conversation and redirecting their attention from a problem to a solution.


[1] Brotheridge, Céleste & Grandey, Alicia. (2002). Emotional Labor and Burnout: Comparing Two Perspectives of “People Work”. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 60. 17-39. 10.1006/jvbe.2001.1815.