Silence the whining worker

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For some people no circumstance is ever good enough, and they’re not shy about sharing that with the whole office. It would be nice to be able to just walk away, but that’s not always possible in team and group work situations.

Not only can the complainer make work that bit more unpleasant for everyone, they can also reduce productivity.

Studies have revealed that endless complaining disrupts learning, memory and attention, according to Standford neurology professor Robert Sapolsky. Highly emotional complaining, or problems that make the listener also feel begrudged, can have an even more profound effect.

One US company found a novel approach to reducing whining: PaceButler CEO Tom Pace offered a cash reward to any employee who gave up complaining and gossiping for at least seven days.

Participants wore rubber bracelets that they switched from one arm to the other if they slipped up. Those who made it the full week went in the draw for a monthly $500 prize. Some participants said they didn’t even realise how often they were complaining until they took part. Account manager Benjamin Ballard said he thought that by making jokes about his migraines “that somehow made it positive”. He stopped griping and took action to stop his headaches instead.

Sometimes those who complain the longest have a valid point, so asking them to solve the problem can help. Former drug company national accounts manager Joan Curto spent months fuming at how much time she spent on the road, away from her home and family. Finally, her then-boss Trevor Blake asked her for a solution. The result? A system of delegating to local pharmacists and only organising fact time with high potential clients that saw sales increase - and Curto get more time with her family.

Some tips for HR to reduce griping:

  • Sometimes people aren’t aware of their complaining or its effect on others. An awareness campaign like PaceButler’s, or getting co-workers in the habit of simple asking “what are you doing to solve that?” could make a world of difference.

  • Offer a specific time or opportunity for complaints, whether it’s at the start of a meeting or through an anonymous system. Ask employees to tell their co-workers to bring up their gripes there, rather than in a group or informal setting

  • The put-upon listener can try to change the subject by asking what’s going well or how the complainer intends to solve their problem.
  • Steve Punter on 11/04/2013 10:10:19 a.m.

    Whether it's just one, or a group of whiners, my first approach is to observe and make notes so I know what they're whining about and how often they're doing it. Then I need to consider whether the whine is justified. How many employees receive training in 'This Is How You Complain About Something' ? Often employees are unhappy but they don't have an easy or risk-free way to vent that unhappiness. So they whine, hoping someone influential might here it and do something about it.

    On a unionised site there's the advantage of a local on-site delegate and a formal and regular process for airing unhappiness, if necessary anonymously.

    Could it be that having a lot of whiners tells you as much about the culture of the company and the management as it does about the employee?

    If it's an individual, and when I'm in possession of actual facts rather than hearsay, I meet with the employee, lay the issue on the table, and ask how we make the problem go away. It may be easily fixed, or at the other end of the scale, it may need the employee to go - and we mustn't be shy of confronting that.

    If it's a group I still approach it on an individual basis at first, only moving into 'team' discussions when I think it's the right time (by then I've got facts and I've had a chance to establish rapport with some (if not all) of them.

    Sometimes, just talking about an issue makes the whining stop. Sometimes whiners come up with their own solution, when given a guided opportunity to do so. You don't always have to have a solution. Maybe there IS no solution; sometimes the job or the situation 'is what it is'. Imagine a grave-digger complaining that it's a dead-end job. But you've shown that you are genuinely prepared to listen and consider and try. That's the important bit.

    Destructive whining has to be stopped. It's a cancer right up there with passive-aggressive behaviour. It's a measurable, observable workplace behaviour and therefore it can be addressed like any other behavioural issue. In amongst the implied responsibilities of an employed relationship is the requirement to work in the employer's best interests. Good Faith works both ways.

    Steve Punter
    Auckland NZ

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