Silence the whining worker

Not only can the complainer make work that bit more unpleasant for everyone, they can also reduce productivity. Here's how HR can make inroads.

Silence the whining worker

For some people no circumstance is ever good enough, and they’re not shy about sharing that with the whole office. It would be nice to be able to just walk away, but that’s not always possible in team and group work situations.

Not only can the complainer make work that bit more unpleasant for everyone, they can also reduce productivity.

Studies have revealed that endless complaining disrupts learning, memory and attention, according to Standford neurology professor Robert Sapolsky. Highly emotional complaining, or problems that make the listener also feel begrudged, can have an even more profound effect.

One US company found a novel approach to reducing whining: PaceButler CEO Tom Pace offered a cash reward to any employee who gave up complaining and gossiping for at least seven days.

Participants wore rubber bracelets that they switched from one arm to the other if they slipped up. Those who made it the full week went in the draw for a monthly $500 prize. Some participants said they didn’t even realise how often they were complaining until they took part. Account manager Benjamin Ballard said he thought that by making jokes about his migraines “that somehow made it positive”. He stopped griping and took action to stop his headaches instead.

Sometimes those who complain the longest have a valid point, so asking them to solve the problem can help. Former drug company national accounts manager Joan Curto spent months fuming at how much time she spent on the road, away from her home and family. Finally, her then-boss Trevor Blake asked her for a solution. The result? A system of delegating to local pharmacists and only organising fact time with high potential clients that saw sales increase - and Curto get more time with her family.

Some tips for HR to reduce griping:

  • Sometimes people aren’t aware of their complaining or its effect on others. An awareness campaign like PaceButler’s, or getting co-workers in the habit of simple asking “what are you doing to solve that?” could make a world of difference.

  • Offer a specific time or opportunity for complaints, whether it’s at the start of a meeting or through an anonymous system. Ask employees to tell their co-workers to bring up their gripes there, rather than in a group or informal setting

  • The put-upon listener can try to change the subject by asking what’s going well or how the complainer intends to solve their problem.

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