Dealing with negativity and griping

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“Some of my employees are enablers,” a client told me recently. “They gripe among themselves about things they don’t like, or about something I’ve done, and then when they’re in a meeting and I ask for input on the topic they are silent. Rather than speaking up to tell me what they’re unhappy about, or telling the griper to go and talk to me about it, they just enable the person to keep on complaining without taking responsibility to fix it.” 

What kind of culture do you create around the issue of complaints? Are people being open with you? And on the other side of the coin, are you enabling your colleagues to create a dysfunctional, negative environment? In short: are you an enabler? 

Are you shutting down communication?

When employees aren’t communicating the way they should, I always start with the manager and work my way down my mental checklist of causes. Fair or not, the leader usually contributes to the problem in some way, since the manager is in the power seat and usually influences employees’ behaviors by his or her reaction to them.  

Say, for example, the employee has come to the manager in the past, but the manager didn’t listen to the complaint, or didn’t do anything about the employee’s concern. It’s a safe bet that the employee won’t be returning with many more issues, but will turn to his or her peers to grouse. 

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is to justify their behavior instead of drawing out the employee’s concerns. For example, some managers are quick to explain why they made the decision they did and why their approach is right. The manager would be much better off drawing out the employee’s thoughts and perceptions, asking questions and probing to get it all out on the table. Once the manager has fully heard and understood the employee’s perspective, he or she can address the concerns straight on, rather than deflecting them with a defensive sounding rebuttal. 

The thing these managers miss is that employees form their perceptions from what they believe to be good reasons, and if the manager doesn’t listen closely to why the employee has that perception or concern, the manager will miss valuable information and will shut down communication. 

Do you redirect complainers to go talk to the person in question?

What do you do when someone gripes to you about a co-worker? Do you secretly enjoy the juicy gossip? Do you fan the flames because it makes you feel closer to the complainer?  

Often, I see camps form in the workplace: team members sub-group in little cliques and bad-mouth each other, or employees gather against their boss. Sometimes these camps grow into full-scale factions that can not be repaired.  

A simple solution, but one that is often skipped, is to redirect the complainer to go talk to the right person. Instead of, “Yeah, she really is an ego-maniac!” why not say, “You know I can see why you’re upset. It won’t do you any good to tell me, though. Why don’t you go talk to her about it. If you don’t talk to her, it can’t get resolved.” 

Do you facilitate solutions rather than collude with the griper?

Which direction do you tend to lean? When someone is upset about someone else’s behavior, do you sooth their ruffled feelings, or, do you really help the person find solutions to the problem? Which comment do you think is more helpful?

1.    “Wow, that would make me angry, too! I can’t believe she would do that to you!”

2.    Or, questions like these: “I can see why you’re upset. Have you talked with her about it?” “What do you think caused her to do that?” “What do you think you could say?”

Re-examine your reaction to a complaint about someone or something at work. Are you an enabler?    


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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