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Managers: How to Tell a Good Complainer From a Bad Complainer

Topics: Career Advice
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Managing a complainer can be tough. But as The Leadership Freak points out, not all complainers are created equal. While some complainers are venting (a.k.a. gossiping) and stirring up dissent among coworkers and HR, others are actually constructive critics in disguise. The trick here is to learn how to differentiate between a disruptor and a Debbie Downer.

Good complainers can often be the key to revamping a tired process or moving the needle on an organization’s level of innovation. Conversely, an employee that consistently walks around with a rain cloud overhead can be toxic. Want to make sure you know when to heed valuable feedback and when to pass on aimless whining? Here’s how to tell a good complainer from a bad complainer.

Do they complain frequently?

As Fast Company points out, a chronic complainer can be poison for employee morale. If the complainer is always sowing seeds of dissatisfaction and spreading bad juju around, it’s probably wise to take their feedback with a grain of salt. If the issue isn’t one of personal safety, and everyone else seems to be okay with the status quo, try to brainstorm ways for the employee to adjust expectations so they aren’t always feeling so dismayed by things out of their control, and empower them to look for areas of improvement in their own workflow and environment.

What’s the context?

If you’re receiving complaints or grievances from an employee who’s usually pretty even-keeled, pay special attention to the context surrounding their issues. Is the office stress level higher than usual? Did their role change? Have they recently undergone a major shift in their personal life? Noting the context of the complaint can help you read between the lines to better understand what pushed them to voice the concern, and what’s at stake for them in getting it solved. Dylan Minor, Assistant Professor at the Kellogg School of Management, notes that identifying context offers a fast track to resolving the issue. Offering support could curb complaining altogether.

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Are they offering solutions?

As noted philosopher Eckhart Tolle points out, there’s a significant difference between egocentric complaining (complaining to be right, and seizing the opportunity to be indignant) and speaking up about something that’s amiss. Speaking up is perfectly acceptable when pointing out an error that needs to be fixed or reimagined (“The printer routinely jams. It might be time for a service call.” “I’m noticing a bottleneck on getting client approval for social media posts. Is there a more direct way we can present documents to them?”) If your employee is focused on an inefficient element of the office workflow rather than their own personal feelings about it, that’s usually a good sign that they’re looking for solutions. Trust their instincts and put their problem-solving skills to use.

Are they serious?

Do they follow up with you regarding their complaints? Have they spent a significant amount of time brainstorming a solution on their own? If the employee is consistent with their feedback, it could be a sign that they’re committed to reaching a place of mutual improvement with your help. Conversely, if they’re stopping by your office or inbox to lodge new complaints every few weeks, it’s probably more of a passing thought than a priority. Annoying as it can be to field these grievances, chalk it up to the routine of a bad complainer and try to move past it.

Do they bring data?

Does your complainer back up their grievances with data? Are they making a compelling argument for change? Whether it’s hard numbers or broader, qualitative data, taking the time to gather and present evidence to support their case suggests a certain level of engagement and dedication to improving the situation. A “good complainer” will see presenting their case as an opportunity to disrupt the status quo, mine for insights, patterns, creative problem-solving, and solutions. A “bad complainer” will likely see the homework aspect as an annoying task and lose interest (and steam).

Are their complaints focused on coworkers?

Are the employee’s complaints mostly procedural, or are they more focused on interpersonal differences? A good complainer always has an eye on improvement, paying special attention to the issues around which they can affect actionable change. A bad complainer, on the other hand, might seem overly preoccupied with voicing annoyance over a coworker’s individual quirks. If the employee is focused more on optimizing workflow and less on venting about coworkers they can’t stand, their ideas probably deserve some attention. If not, challenge them to change their thinking, and try to keep their complaints from bringing down the rest of the organization.

Tell Us What You Think

How do you differentiate between constructive criticizers and plain-old whiners? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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