Managing Moaners and Negative People

Everyone can be partial to a moan. Someone uses the last of the milk, it’s bitterly cold and raining (this is England), someone is off sick, I have all of this extra work, this client is unbelievably difficult, my boss is flapping and driving me crazy. These are staple comments in the world of work and it is very normal to have a bit of a moan. What we are looking at here are serial moaners.

These employees relentlessly complain, whine and moan about everything and have a genuine and substantial effect on the team’s motivation, sense of purpose, engagement and positive outlook. The last thing anyone wants is an environment of negative contagion.

So what do we do? Firstly, it’s good to acknowledge that pessimists, cynics and moaners have their uses in a modern office. For every ‘can do’ plan and new strategy, it can be useful to understand what resistance employees may have to this and they can help identify holes in the best laid plans through counter arguments. 

Secondly, speaking to them is key. No formal action should be taken here, it should be done through an informal chat, or the use of an appraisal or supervision. Identify where the moaning is not useful and explore the issues it presents. Discuss what is making them unhappy and the possible causes of this as your first step. Ask the employee general questions about their role and how they are getting on as this can often lead to specifics about their concerns. The approach and tone in the discussion should be receptive and supportive as this will encourage them to talk more openly. Avoid, where possible, telling them their attitude is condemning everyone to daily torture. Conversely, tell them that you are worried about their well being and the well being of the team.

Moaners are often either looking for attention, struggling with managing frustration which leads to outbursts, or they have an external locus of control i.e. they blame everyone else for their issues. Getting them to shift this perspective is challenging and these conversations can lead to upset. Allowing them time to process this is important but explaining that this behaviour cannot continue is equally important. Sometimes, after the initial meeting, it’s useful to meet up with them again, say a week later, to see how they are getting on. This space should have given them time to reflect on the issues, a change of perspective doesn’t often happen within a 30 minute chat. At the second meeting, see how they are coping and if any concerns need addressing.

It is important to remember that where the employee has a complaint that needs addressing formally, the appropriate action is taken. Formal investigation, whistle blowing or grievance is available for an employee where genuine concern is raised and requires procedural intervention.

A proactive approach to moaners starts, as always, with the recruitment process. Asking questions around problem solving and when issues have occurred at work and how they responded to them often gives clearer insight into the candidate’s attitude. When they use words to describe the situation, such as “challenging”, “learning” or “discover”, they will more likely be positive people who proactively look for solutions, conversely, a negative person, or someone more likely to moan habitually, will use words such as, “unsupported”, “no control” or “lack of direction”. The way someone communicates and frames challenging situations at work often indicates their natural demeanour and approach. Regular appraisals are essential in managing employee development and cultural approach and are key to preventing moaning from escalating into contagious resentment.  
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