As business owners and leaders, we’re often told how important it is to listen to our employees and address their complaints quickly. However, how do you differentiate between a legitimate complaint and what’s just whining? A legitimate complaint is one that an employee can provide a specific, concrete example of and can express how the issues negatively affect your business or your employees. A real complaint is also one where the complainant truly wants a solution, not just to hear their own voice. Whining is either a complaint without merit or one where the complainant rejects all solutions and simply wants to wallow in their own misery. Workplace whining is something you’ll want to address and stop quickly before it spreads to others and brings down the morale of your whole team.
So, what can you do to stop workplace whining?
What’s The Solution?
Business leaders set the tone for what behavior is acceptable or not in any business. Therefore, think carefully about what you “vent” about to your employees or in front of them. Rather than venting or whining yourself, ask, “Is this a problem that can be solved or not?” If that answer is no, then keep it to yourself. If the answer is yes, pose a question to your team rather than sharing a complaint. Ask them for suggestions instead of whining.
Ensure all employees know how they can bring legitimate complaints forward to management when they first happen, rather than waiting for problems to persist. Whether it’s a complaint form, an email or an anonymous note dropped in a complaint box, it’s important to make sure your employees know you expect them to not only share their complaint, but also facts to back it up and the impact of the problem.
The Job Description
Making your expectations clear upon hiring and in employee job descriptions can limit workplace whining. If an employee was hired to work Monday through Friday and suddenly you require them to take Mondays off and work Saturday instead, their complaint about that is legitimate. However, if an employee was hired and was clearly told they’d have to work the first Saturday of every month, yet they complain, that would be considered whining. A helpful tip surrounding this issue is to have employees sign off on their onboarding paperwork that outlines policies, procedures and job descriptions, confirming they understand them and are willing to abide by them.
Involve Your Employees
People are less likely to whine about things they’ve decided upon or agreed to do rather than things forced upon them. Therefore, whenever you can, involve your employees in the decision-making process for big issues that are going to have a significant impact on them. An additional benefit is that you might find a solution to a problem that’s better than one you would have come up with on your own.
Share Your Truth
If the whiner complains that a coworker is challenging to work with, share your truth by saying, “I don’t find her difficult. She’s just very thorough and takes more time to make decisions.” If the whiner complains about traffic, you can say, “I find it’s a breeze to get here quickly if I leave home before 7 a.m.” Why does this work? Whiners want someone to commiserate with them, not someone who contradicts them. When you share your truth, you’re taking the fun out of their complaining, and they’ll take their show elsewhere.
Get Employee Feedback
If an employee is whining at a staff meeting or other team gathering, that is a great opportunity to paraphrase the concern and ask the team if they feel similarly, or simply say, “What does everyone think about what Amy has said?” You need to do this carefully as you don’t want to create animosity, but it can help the whiner to see they’re complaining needlessly when they see that their coworkers aren’t having the same problem. If other employees agree with the whiner, then maybe you’ve miscategorized the issue, and it could be a legitimate complaint that needs to be investigated and fixed.
Ask Some Questions
You could say, “That sounds like a difficult issue. What would you like me to do to help?” When you ask this question, you’ll either get a legitimate request for assistance or if the complainer doesn’t actually want a solution and was just venting, they will likely tell you there’s nothing you can do and walk away. A chronic complainer doesn’t want to waste time talking with someone who wants to fix things, only to someone who will entertain the complaint and allow them to go on and on about it.
Request Their Solution
This is especially important if you’re too uncomfortable trying the tip above. You can always say to the whiner, “It sounds like this is an important problem for you, and I’d like to help. Why don’t we set a time to talk later today when you’ve had a chance to think about solutions. I’ll be glad to discuss the solutions you’ve come up with and give my input. What time do you want to meet?” One of two things will happen as a result of this approach. First, you might help the whiners in your life start being more solution-oriented, and you’re giving them support, if they take steps first to help themselves. Second, if the whiner doesn’t want to solve the problem, they won’t return. Problem solved for you.
The Big Question
There’s a time and a place for this question, but when an employee whines about something that’s within their control to fix and the best person to fix it is them, then ask the question. It stops whiners in their tracks and tells them immediately that you’re not their sounding board. Instead, you’re going to require them to solve their own problems. This question doesn’t have to be asked with a harsh or aggressive tone. You wait until the whiner has stated the complaint and then sincerely say, “Wow, that sounds like something you’re really concerned about. What are you going to do about it?” The result will be similar to the other techniques; the whiner will actually start exploring solutions or will become frustrated by you and walk away to find someone else who will listen to them whine.
Just Say ‘No’
If the whiner is bringing you the same complaint you’ve addressed before, and it’s obvious they aren’t looking for a solution, don’t have the same conversation again. Say, “Dave, we’ve had this conversation before. I’ve offered you all the advice I can think of, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to help. I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in having this conversation again. I have a lot of work to get done, and I need to get back to it.” To answer your question before you ask, yes, Dave will likely be unhappy with this response, but the Daves of the world aren’t going to be happy with anything you have to say. It’s time to focus on your own happiness (and productivity) and stop being the sounding board for the whiners of the world.
Amy P. Castro, MA, is a business, leadership and communication expert, author and speaker who helps pet industry professionals grow their loyal customer base by building a “Best in Show” team that can deliver a 5-Star Customer Experience.