Leading a Chronic Complainer

Having a complainer on the team can sap morale. It can be infectious, akin to gossip, and it is rarely productive. You won’t be able to solve it from the top down—indeed, discouraging complaining outright tends to drive it underground where you have less visibility into the problem. Instead, you will want to understand and address the root causes underlying the behavior.

Understanding their motivations

Chances are, this team member is not intentionally trying to drag down the team or make your life harder. Here are some common reasons people complain:

  • They care deeply about something but don’t know how to accomplish it
  • They believe their performance is lacking in some dimension and are trying to improve it, but the frustration with the disparity between their goals and reality manifests as complaining about their circumstances. This could be caused by fundamental attribution error and is especially common when someone first joins a team.
  • They haven’t yet developed the confidence or internal strength to deal with the frustration themselves and so must express it by complaining to others.

Things to try

When someone is complaining, they usually express their concerns differently than when they’re asking for advice. Most of the time you will not need to actually solve their problem, although occasionally you will. So don’t jump immediately to offering solutions. Help them work through the deeper issues first, since that may be all they need.

Listening is essential. Pay close attention to their words and body language, and try to understand the patterns of thought that would lead to this behavior. Don’t plan your response or devise solutions while they’re talking. Instead, focus on listening so well that you can repeat back to them what they said and make sure they know that you comprehend correctly. Often, this kind of validation is all the person needs. Their complaining could be a manifestation of an unmet desire to be understood, and the simple act of your listening and validating their feelings could be enough to resolve their issue.

If they need tools to deal with frustration, rather than a solution to the circumstances, try to offer sympathy and acknowledge their feelings. But recognize that you will not be able to change them, and it may take some “tough love” to help them recognize that the solution must come from them.

This will be most effective when addressed in a private setting. If you’ve never done a walking meeting, this could be a good opportunity to try it, as it puts you on a more equal footing and makes it easier to express thoughts about difficult subjects.

Further reading

If you want to learn more about this problem, whether you have a complaining tendency or someone on your team does, here are some articles to get you started: