The 4 E’s To Handling Complainers

Despite all our positive leadership efforts, we often still have people who are addicted and obsessed with complaining. It’s as if complaining feeds some dark empty sore spot for some people, and that if they didn’t complain, they’d have nothing to say. So, here are the 3 key “E’s” to improve the situation and the 1 final “E” – hitting the eject button themselves.

Engage others by not talking – Sometimes we just want to be heard. Engaging individuals is less about questions and more about saying nothing and using our ears instead.

The words “Silent” and “Listen” use the exact same letters.

Try to learn what is behind others’ complaints. We all have fear and some of us manage it better than others. Due to past learning – both good & bad – fear can shape our current actions. If we listen to their “stories” we have a chance to understand them through their expression of feelings, instead of our interrupting, counseling, agreeing, or fixing things, which won’t change anything – we can just nod and listen. Like in negotiations, we can’t negotiate a position (the line in the sand) we can only understand the motivations behind their position.

Encourage quietly – Once you know the motivations and benefits requested of the complainer, we can clarify that they are missing the mark in private. Encourage new language and tone for them in order to achieve their goals in a more positive manner. Anytime we are unable to achieve something on our own we only have 2 choices – quit or get help. Let chronic complainers know they are powerful through allowing others to help. Others are everything to our success – before every champion kisses the trophy they ‘thank’ someone for helping them get to their goal. We need to be clear and not sugar coat the specific behavior, addressing their specific statements, tones, body language, or actions that are not yielding the results they say they want. We need to be sure and leave our emotions out of the conversation.

Elevate them – Reinforce positives publicly and correct less positive actions privately. We all need to be accountable and take responsibility internally for things we can control. When we hear complaints – ask these 5 questions:

  • How is this an issue or problem for you?
  • What would you rather have happen?
  • What will that do for you ? (keep them digging until you hit a value, not just “I want it”)
  • What part can you control – what have you done?
  • How is that working – what will you try next?

Eject the bad egg – I had an employee years ago who really seemed intent on being fired. He was more interested in telling people he’d been “ fired” as a perverse way of proving us wrong, gaining attention, or locking in some other job faster. Some people love the drama. So, while we provide treatment to people with SCS (Severe Complaint Syndrome), as if they require medicine, at some point an “ectomy” may be required and it might even be embraced by them.

My learning – The complainer often is MORE miserable than we will ever know. So move with dignity and in collaboration with your mentor/HR partner to do the right thing and help everyone see a better future; for some it may be outside their current organization.

No Monument was ever Built to a Pessimist,


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