Interview: Dealing with Complainers Who Sap Workplace Productivity

Apr 11, 2013
9 Min Read

Complaining at work is about as common as the bad coffee in the breakroom and the endless cycle of meetings.  But what happens when a whining colleague or boss never stops? According to new research, issues such as chronic complaining damages productivity, morale and the bottom line.

“Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers,” author Linda Swindling recently talked with Anita Bruzzese to offer some insight into whiners:


 1.       Why do people complain?

Everyone complains and vents at times and for all sorts of reasons: There is stress at home or work. You could be facing a difficult situation, a big change, or maybe there are health or financial concerns.

Chronic complainers, however, are self-absorbed. Their complaints aren’t helpful. They create a hyper-focus on negative issues.  These energy drainers are using whining, complaining, and/or offensive behavior to obtain rewards, avoiding some sort of pain or gain control.


 2.       What do they complain about the most?

The top complaints are too much work to do, unclear direction or lack of feedback from leadership, and incompetent co-workers or bosses. Chronic complainers suck the resources, time, energy and joy out of work and life. They aren’t concerned with solutions. For many, their bad behavior has worked since childhood. In fact, chronic complainers often are compared to school bullies, spoiled toddlers, whiny children, sneaky adolescents and sullen teenagers.


 3.       What do complainers cost those in the workplace?

Surprisingly, 78% of people report a loss of at least 3 to 6 hours each week because of complainers. At a minimum, that translates into one to two months spent every year for every person who spends time dealing with complainers. Thirty-two percent say they spend more than six hours per week, and 2% report that complainers consume more than 20 hours of their time during their workweek.

This unproductive time costs companies at least $4,600 to $9,200 per year per employee. That means that U.S. employers are spending at least $10.2 billion on wasted time per week and over $513 billion a year on complainers and draining situations.

Employees don’t want to work with complainers, even if you pay them. Seventy-three percent of people say they would choose to stay in their current job at their current annual pay rather than accepting a $10,000 pay raise that required them to work daily with a chronic complainer.

If you don’t address the work drama, you risk the loss of productive contributors. Complainers cause good employees to leave a company and jobs they like. At least 11% left a job because they couldn't stand working with a complainer. Culture rates above salary as a key component in why people, especially good performers, stay in their jobs.


 4.       Is there anything you can do when the complainer is your boss?

If the complainer is your boss, you first need to listen and make sure you aren’t causing the problem and that the solution isn’t yours to fix. Despite their roles as leaders, bosses are still attempting to get a need met. Use caution. Not all solutions fit all complaining bosses. Each of the five types of complainers have a specific way of complaining, including tone, conversation style, words and behavior. They also want different outcomes:

Whiner bosses want empathy and connection. They complain by showing disapproval, venting or withdrawing. Don’t try to solve their problems or become their personal counselor or coach. Listen for a short while, empathize and then ask what solutions they are going to try.

Complicator bosses want calm and stability. They complain by blocking, complicating and creating confusion. They can appear as micro-managers, perfectionists or critics. Slow down your approach and explain, recognize their expertise and knowledge and offer suggestions as an upgrade or logical next step.

Prima Donna bosses want recognition. They complain by seeking attention, gossiping, interrupting and interfering. They can make unrealistic promises you can’t deliver, use you as a scapegoat and take the credit for your work. Help them gain positive attention and look good to others. Don’t get lost in the drama they cause and, if possible, find ways to publicize your results to peers and people who matter.

Controller bosses want action and to accomplish goals. They complain aggressively to control or reach an outcome. They can be bullies, tyrants and bulldozers. You will need to assertively stand your ground without being aggressive. Show them that progress is being made. When you can, allow them to make some decisions from a narrow selection of options.

Toxic bosses want to further a self-absorbed agenda. They complain to manipulate or poison the environment. They can use any of the other four types of complaining to divert attention away from their own inadequacies, misrepresent their expertise and promote their interests. Protect yourself by keeping your own records, seeking help from a trusted advisor such as a mentor, coach or counselor. Watch what communication works best with your toxic boss. Do your best to steer yourself clear of them, including transferring to another team, division or job. Warning: Use stealth when you are looking for an escape. Toxic bosses can retaliate.

(To identify which of the five complaining types you’re dealing with go to and take the free assessment “Spot Your Complainer’s Type.” )

 5.       Which type of complainer causes the greatest problems and why?

The most dangerous complainers are “controllers” and “toxics.” When they are pushing to get something done or eliminate a delay, “controllers” can be seen as bullies or harassers with their demanding nature and “no excuses” allowed demeanor. “Toxics” are narcissists, manipulators and even psychopaths. They are charming, disarming and poison an environment. When you employ people with no conscience and who are concerned only with furthering their own goals, the torment and harm is without measure.


 6.       What is constructive complaining and why should it be encouraged?

It sounds unbelievable, but criticism can create beneficial business results. Complaining customers who take the time and energy to identify an area of concern are doing you a favor. If situations are brought to light early enough, a company has the opportunity to make it right.

Some tips to encourage constructive feedback are:

  • Listen to the complainer without judgment.
  • Don’t blame.
  • When in doubt, ask questions.
  • Show appreciation for the information.
  • If you are in the wrong, say, “What can we do to make it right?” or “What do you think is fair?”
  • Do not dwell on the past. Once you understand the problem, focus on a resolution and the future.

Have you ever had colleagues or bosses that constantly complain?  How did you handle the situation?

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