4 ways to manage the team complainer
Jean was becoming known as a complainer after the company merger. She had lost her Department Manager role to Raj from the larger acquiring company and on top of that, she now had to report to him. She was unhappy about that but she was even more frustrated by the overly complex systems Raj was putting in place. She was not shy about letting others know her thoughts and feelings about this situation.
The role of the complainer
Often on a team, someone will pick up the role of the complainer. It can dampen everyone’s mood and even create rifts, perhaps dividing the team into those who agree with the complainer and those who disagree.
Of course, there will be those who tune out because they just want to have harmony on the team and don’t want to indulge the complaints.
But complaining may need to be dealt with. A lot of complaining can raise stress levels, especially if the person is quite emotive. It can become contagious, starting others complaining as well (misery loves company!). This can really tank a team’s spirit and motivation.
What’s really going on and what could you do about it?
But complaining may be a symptom of something unhealthy going on in a team and it can be worthwhile to get curious and investigate the source of the complaint. So, before we write this person off as “just a complainer”, try to see if there is something to learn from it. Why are they complaining?
Here are a few lessons to consider, both what might be going on and what you could do about it.
Is it a habit? It could be that it’s just a habit and they complain about a lot of things in their life. If Jean had always complained before this situation or often complains about things outside of work, then maybe it’s just a habit for her.
- In the case of the constant complainer, you could give feedback about their impact and help them deal with things differently and feel more in control. Learn about the 3 options model, described in this blog post: How can I feel more in control?
Is it an attempt to vent? It is helpful to “get things off your chest” and sure it can be fun and even funny to have a brief complaint together. But if it goes beyond a few minutes, it’s not venting.
- Complaining doesn’t actually help people vent, it does the opposite. Complaining builds up frustration while venting releases it. Venting requires intention; the person venting needs to try to rid themselves of the story, the emotions and further complaints. You could help someone vent by teaching them how. This blog post may help: Do you know how to really let off steam?
Is a personal value threatened? If someone’s personal values are threatened in a situation, they are likely to feel frustrated and upset. While it’s still their responsibility to manage their own emotions and reactions, you might be able to support them.
For example, given that Jean is focusing on her frustration about Raj’s overly complex plans, this may indicate that she has values around simplicity or transparency.
- You could help Jean recognise that there might be a particularly important value of hers at play here. Listen with curiosity and see if you can spot what is rubbing her the wrong way. Or ask her what’s most disturbing about this situation. She will likely say complexity or something that frustrates her, and you may need to help her flip that around to find the value, e.g., simplicity or maybe for her, it’s elegance.
Systems role: from a systems-thinking point of view, the complainer may have ended up in the role of speaking up about issues, because nobody else dared to. The others may be conflict averse and this one person then carries the burden of pointing to uncomfortable issues. This happens a lot. Maybe they aren’t just complaining but just trying to improve how things work while others just want to be “positive” and move on, even if that means ignoring the elephant in the room.
- The next time you are disturbed by someone complaining, take a moment to see what truth you can find in what they are saying. Are they pointing out something bravely? Maybe they aren’t voicing it elegantly, but the message might be useful. In this case, you could help them clarify what the challenge is and perhaps even express more clearly or cleanly.
- You could also discuss this with the team – how can you share the burden of speaking up about issues so that it doesn’t always fall to one person who then gets labelled as a disturber.
The message here is that there are many reasons why people complain. Behind the complaint there might be some useful information and an indication that something needs to change.
If we stop and listen and help them discover the real issue and help them express themselves better, you may be well on your way to improving your teamwork and team spirit. As well as helping that person move from complainer to trailblazer.4 tips for blended learning programmesLet’s rethink how we measure success