In this recession, lots of specific problems crop up that we moan and groan about. But habitual whiners and complainers want us to wallow in their negativity even in the best of times. In her article in the Financial Times, “Office moaners are something to groan about,” Emma Jacobs points out that habitual complainers can demoralize and depress any office. The skill to critically foresee potential problems and try to solve them is totally different from an endless stream of hostility, negativity and victim-talk. Of course, good managers pay attention to comments from productive staff.
While occasional griping is a natural part of our lives, a Grump’s steady stream of bad attitudes coupled with attempts to prove that we should all feel as bad as he does, rapidly convert our sympathy into anger.
Negativity also promotes workplace divisiveness. Moaners ostracize anyone who won’t join in and their continued focus on what’s unfair or wrong leads co-workers to focus also on what’s wrong at work instead of finding solutions or staying productive.
Although most people moan and groan for a while in response to specific situations, typically, you’ll encounter three types of habitual moaners:
- People who routinely feel discouraged, depressed and victimized, and just want to whine endlessly about how hard life is.
- Co-workers who batter you with their views about how bad the world or the company is. You have to agree or you just don’t understand (“you fool”) or you’re one of the “oppressors.”
- Bullies who use moaning to take control and power.
The last category is sometimes surprising. How can someone so victimized, negative and wimpy be a successful bully?
- Well meaning people sympathize, agree and join their crusades.
- Co-workers spend hours giving them sympathy instead of working.
- Managers and co-workers start walking on egg shells around complaining bullies in order to make them feel good or from fear that their supporters will gang up on you because you hurt their feelings.
Behind this stealth bullying is the moaning bullies’ desire to control what correct behavior should be (“Those rotten people should do …) and their rules for how we should respond to what they see as major injustices.
- Don’t hang out with negative people. Leave the break room or sweetly remove them from your cubicle or office while saying, “I have too much to do right now” and turn to do it, or “I have so many deadlines, would you do this for me” and give them a simple task.
- Don’t debate with them. They don’t want to change their minds. Notice that if you win one debate, they rapidly come up with something else to moan about. Their goal is to moan, not solve problems.
- Individually stand on your own ground. You might say, “You’re right but that’s not important enough to waste much time on,” or “you’re right but that’s part of life so I don’t get upset about it,” or “you’re right but that’s too big for me to do anything about at this moment so I’d rather focus on the things that lift my spirit and energy.”
- At a workshop someone suggested what’s become my favorite. With a straight face say, “My therapist says I can’t have any discouraging talk for seven days straight, so do you have any happy or uplifting things to tell me?” This has worked every time.
- On your team, make team agreements or “Behavioral Ground Rules” against moaning, groaning, negativity or gossip. Call it like it is. Some teams even have “No Moaning” signs at their meetings.
Of course, we sympathize and support someone who is in a painful situation and needs a pick-me-up. But don’t throw your sympathy into a bottomless bucket. You’re not being paid to be anyone’s therapist and your organization is probably not a therapeutic environment for employees.
Of course the same could be said about whiners, moaners and complainers at home. They’ll drag your energy down if you let them. As Henry Adams said, “Even the gayest of tempers succumbs at last to constant friction.” In your personal life, give whining complainers a chance to change or vote them off your island.