LMA Communication

Your coworker may be dedicated, hard-working, and good at her job. However, her active criticism of any and everything gets on coworker’s nerves and makes us want to insulate ourselves from her rants.

Complainers sap energy from an organization because they make sure that every cloud has a lead lining. They make things look worse than they are, and their grumbling can be contagious. The complainer starts criticizing the boss or the new employee, and sometime before we know it, we are nodded in agreement or even joining in the discussion.

So how do we keep from suffering the toxic effects of complaining coworkers? We can’t always avoid them or ignore them, and we know that telling them to cheer up and look on the bright side is an exercise in futility.   Once you decide that the person’s complaints are the result of a bad habit rather than legitimate concerns, the following techniques may make the problem easier to endure.

Try to identify the cause of someone’s urge to complain.

People sometimes complain because of a sense of social anxiety or insecurity. If they can draw attention to others’ or organizations’ shortcomings, they feel better. Complaining becomes an escape valve for the frustration they may be feeling about their own situations and sometimes alleviates a sense of powerlessness.

Find ways to recognize that person’s accomplishments. If you are able, involve her in decisions. Put the complainer in charge of some of the areas that are the targets of her complaints.

When the complainer involves you in a conversation, keep your response short and noncommittal, and quickly change the subject.

When Jane starts talking about how rude a customer has been to him, simply say “Yes, we all deal with those customers occasionally,” and shift topics. The complainer wants to convert you to his perspective. Refusing to become embroiled in a gripe session about customers will discourage Jane from complaining to you, and if enough people in the office do likewise, she may get the message.

Avoid giving advice or trying to solve the problem.

In many cases, the issue about which they are complaining isn’t that big a deal—even in their own minds. They just enjoy venting. In some cases, they have already solved the problem. The person who complains that her office is too cold may have already brought a sweater to keep behind the door or a space heater near her feet. She just likes to let everyone know about her issues. Posing possible solutions will just pull you further into the situation—something that the complainer usually wants.

Recognize that complainers aren’t harmless. Their pessimism and despondency can negatively affect new employees and inhibit the productivity and morale of a workplace. Take the necessary steps to minimize that person’s influence.


Beverly Y. Langford is President of LMA Communication, Inc.® a consulting, training, and coaching firm that works with organizations and individuals on strategic communication, message development, effective interpersonal communication skills, team building, and leadership development.