This blog post was written in response to the Coffee Shop HR World Café topic: “How do you manage negative attitudes in the workplace?”
We have all encountered people who stay in an organization for years, all the while complaining on a daily basis about their boss, the organization, their colleagues, their clients – it tires me out just thinking about it! But, how do we improve the situation?
First of all, it’s important to remember that complaints, much as we may not want to hear them, sometimes unearth legitimate issues. I remember reading once that it is better to have an employee who criticises the organization because it means they care about the quality of the people and the product. Perhaps this is one of the keys. At the risk of sounding like I am wearing my rose coloured glasses – well, maybe I am, but you can’t see me – I think it is possible to redirect the complaints into plans.
The danger seems to be in falling into the trap of responding to a complaint with another complaint – competing complaints – one-upmanship of the worst kind – “ Well, you think that’s bad – let me tell you….” You get the picture.
What if we respond with a question? Perhaps we could ask what the best solution to the problem would be –or what could the person complaining do to improve the situation. I love the way our brains respond to a question! It is as if they are programmed to answer any question thrown their way. So by asking a question you will have redirected the conversation instead of adding fuel to the fire.
Another technique; this one learned from Don Pinkham who I worked with at BCAA, calls for asking the person what the next step is. So, for example – when your colleague comes up with a solution – ask her what the next step is, or perhaps, what the first step is. Follow this up by asking if there is anything you can do. Quite often the answer will be that there is nothing she wants you to do.
I like this technique because it places the onus on my colleague and leaves me knowing that there is nothing expected of me. On the other hand if I’m asked to do something – I can consider it. Either way, I have broken the cycle – at least for the moment.
I came across this ‘no complaining rule’ in The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work written by Jon Gordon in 2008. http://www.jongordon.com/thenocomplainingrule.html
Employees are not allowed to mindlessly complain to their coworkers. If they have a problem or complaint about their job, their company, their customer, or anything else, they are encouraged to bring the issue to their manager or someone who is in a position to address the complaint. However, the employees must share one or two possible solutions to their complaint as well.
This rule puts the onus on management to work with negative employees, but the message is the same. Colleagues who complain should be asked to come up with solutions. This turns the conversation around and that is, after all, what we want. And, it seems to me that every employee can be part of the solution.
So, we can deal with the issue of negative employees ourselves or try to implement a process in our organization. Although I would prefer the latter, sometimes we don’t have the power to change the organization, but we always have the power to change our response and that is a good starting point.