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How to Deal With Chronic Complainers

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Chronic ComplainerDo you dread coming into work because you know there will be a line of employees waiting to bombard you with complaint after complaint? Do you get anxiety Sunday nights because you know you will be faced with problem after problem first thing Monday morning? When you see the line of employees standing there, you just KNOW that they are going to complain about something. And the chronic complainers aren’t just limited to Mondays. They continue throughout the entire work week until at last, you have a moment of peace on your days off, and then the cycle starts all over again.

How DO you deal with your chronic complainers?

Before learning how to deal with chronic complainers, it might help to know WHY people complain in the first place.

Why do whiners whine?

Let’s face it-we are all whiners. Did you know it has been said that an average person complains 15-30 times a day? Wow! So why do we do it? Will Bowen, author of “A Complaint Free World”, gives us 5 main reasons why people complain.

  1. To start a conversation

How often do we complain about the weather? It’s a basic human desire to want to connect with others, which usually begins with opening up a conversation. What better way to start a conversation than to say how hot it is or how rainy the day is?

Maybe an employee is complaining about how the night shift left the unit for the day shift or vice versa. Is there merit in their complaint, or are they just trying to connect with others to build camaraderie?

  1. To avoid taking action

Some people want to complain just to complain. They don’t REALLY want a solution to their problem because that would require lifting a finger and doing something. With these chronic complainers, you can suggest solutions all you want, but they will always find reasons to shut those down.

  1. To brag about how great they are

When these people complain, it’s because they believe they know better and ARE better than others. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to do it myself since nobody else can seem to handle it,” or, “Did you hear how Nancy gave report? I would never be that bad…”.  These chronic complainers think that others aren’t meeting their high standards.

  1. To control others

This type of complaining is used A LOT in politics. Basically, it’s complaining about someone to get people to change views and be on their side. Thus, forming your own clique that THEY control. We see this most often when you have cliques in your department. The cliques will complain about certain people outside their clique just to maintain the integrity of their clique.

  1. To make excuses about poor performance, behavior, or inaction

In a nutshell, this is to justify their own behavior that would warrant complaints about THEM. For example, they forgot to administer medication to a patient, “I’ve been busy all day! Susie called off so I’ve had extra patients!”. Or an employee comes in late to work and complains about how terrible traffic was as an excuse. It’s never their fault and they’re quick to blame others for their inefficiencies.

Okay, now that we know the psychology behind the “why”, let’s now focus on what you can do to handle these chronic complainers. The next time you are dealing with a complaint from an employee, follow these 3 action steps:

Action Step #1

Clarify with the employee as to whether it’s a complaint or a concern.

After all, you don’t want to fall victim to the “crying wolf” syndrome. Your employee may have a legitimate concern but if you’ve become numb to their chronic complaints, you may miss something important.

Here’s a few scripts you can use to help them clarify which one it is:

Let me make sure I understand-are you complaining or are you truly concerned about something.” You want to put it back on them.

“Tell me how this affects your work.” This works for when you really think this is just gossip or complaining about a co-worker. Quite often, it doesn’t affect their work-they just want to complain about what others do or don’t do. If that’s the case, you can say:

“This sounds kind of like gossip/drama.”

You want to convey to them that there is a difference between just complaining about other people and truly expressing a concern.

Action Step #2

Find something-anything-that you can agree with.

Let’s say an employee complains about being short staffed:

“We’re so short-staffed” or

“This place is always short-staffed” or

“We don’t have enough staff”

Like a broken record, they go on and on about it every day. Which, as a leader, is incredibly frustrating. You immediately want to defend yourself or go off on a tangent, talking about what you are doing to fix it. And that is exactly what they are expecting from you. DON’T DO IT.

Even if you are down some employees or had somebody call-off, AGREE with that employee and say:

“You know what? You’re right. We are short-staffed today”, or “Oh my gosh, you’re right. We are down a few positions.”

The goal is to find anything that you can agree with. By agreeing with them instead of defending, you are disarming them.  Remember-don’t defend yourself.

Action Step #3

Help them focus on TODAY. Human beings tend to forecast their anxieties into the future and as they do, their anxieties magnify causing exaggerated complaints. Your goal is to help them focus on the present.

“What do you need RIGHT NOW to get you through today?”  

“What can we do today to make sure that these patients still get great care?”

“What can we do as a team?”

Bringing up the fact that you are a team and offering immediate solutions can help decrease their anxieties and help them focus on the moment and what they need to care for patients.

Dealing with chronic complainers isn’t easy. However, if you understand why some people complain and follow our 3-step process, you will feel more in control and less dread when you see that line of employees outside your door. Better yet, following this process just might help make that line disappear!


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2 thoughts on “How to Deal With Chronic Complainers”

    1. You’re so right! And, many times, their coworkers talk about them behind their back but won’t say anything to them. In a sense, they “complain” about the complainers!

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