Even successful managers have their share of complainers.
You know the ones: They never see the upside of anything, they’re persistently negative and never seem to know when to stifle it. Hand them a million dollars, they’d complain you didn’t give them anything to carry it in.
But not all complainers deserve a brush off. In a lot of cases, you can cultivate your complainers and put them to good use.
Leadership coach Dan Rockwell offers a unique take on chronic complainers. Depending on both their outlook and yours, you can convert all that negative energy and put it to good use.
“Reject [the] monkey throwers,” Rockwell says, meaning employees who deliberately are out to create chaos. Those are the employees who are constantly dissatisfied, but only want to make things better for themselves. They’re more concerned about personal comfort than working to get something done.
But not all complainers are monkey throwers, Rockwell points out. “What makes some employees feel like irritating gnats can actually bring forth new ideas and force creative thinking.”
If you’re listening, that is.
“Pay attention to complaints from people with skin in the game. They embrace the mission and believe in improvement,” Rockwell adds.
So take these steps when you hear complaints from team members:
First, Are They Contributing-Complainers Or Dead Weight?
The types of complainers who can actually help your department goals are:
- The pushy ones. They don’t go along just to get along. You’ll hear a lot of “But what about …?” from them during discussions. It might seem like they only see the cloud for the silver lining. But they could also be a beacon of light in a fog by pointing out issues or problems others are blinded to.
- The dissatisfied ones. They aren’t happy with the status quo. You’ll hear a lot of “Well, why can’t we . . .?” or “Do we still want to do . . .?” out of this group. While it seems as if they always want to be contrary or argumentative, it’s important to hear them out. They might have a good reason for wanting to change things up, either to prevent possible problems or just to do something better, even if the status quo was “sufficient.”
- The different ones. Managers often fall into the trap of hiring and managing people who think in similar ways, which can lead to homogeneous thinking. But employees who are different can often suggest surprising alternatives to what you thought was the only way to go. From this group, you’ll hear things like “What if we tried . . .?” Even if it’s not what you’d ordinarily do, it might be worth a shot.
Next, Listen To Their Concerns
If they’re reluctant to go beyond their initial argument, prompt them for more information. Ask them: “Why do you feel that way?” or “I hear you – go on . . .” to get them to explain their complaints further.
This shows that you don’t consider them a hindrance or a bother and that their ideas can be just as fruitful as yours.
Ask Probing Questions. Don’t Offer Quick Solutions
This is one way to tell if a complainer’s goal is to resolve something or just to complain.
Ask things like, “Can we fix this?” If the answer is “No,” then you know their aim is just to be difficult. If the answer is “Yes,” it forces them out of battle-mode and into considering helpful solutions.
Then, Pinpoint What They Really Want
This gets at the heart of what’s behind their complaining.
Ask, “Why is this issue bothering you? What are you willing to do to make things better?”
For example, employees may grouse about the merits or lack thereof of a particular task, say filing or archiving.
You might hear, “Why do we have to do this every month?” from employees, but the underlying issue is “We don’t have enough manpower to get this done and it takes too much time.”
Enlist Their Help To Determine The Next Move
Ask those who are complaining to craft some recommendations on how they would approach solving the problem.
Pamela Jett, CEO of Jett Communications based in Mesa, AZ, speaking at a conference on “A Supervisor’s Guide to Stop Workplace Drama,” said she tries to stay “relentlessly positive” when she hears complaints so she doesn’t let them grow and cloud the possibility of a good solution.
“I thank them for bringing the issue to my attention and ask, ‘How do you think we can fix that?’ or ‘What are your recommendations on this?’
“If they don’t have any ideas, I say, ‘Thanks for pointing that out. When you have a recommendation, tell me about it.’ That gets them to either think or stop complaining!”
Then, Don’t Allow Complaints To Obscure Contributions
Remember: Sometimes the people who seem to complain the most are the ones making the most significant contributions.
If you’re hearing complaints from those employees who apply themselves and are invested in their work, they’re likely more of an asset than a bother.
They may make a lot of noise, but if they’re also willing to come up with proactive changes and ideas, they can be invaluable to your team and to the company overall.
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