How to manage the moaners

There they are, spreading doubt and sorrow throughout the office - and they need to be tackled before they drag us all down. Emma de Vita targets the whingers on your team.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Think back over your day - have you had to listen to somebody moan?

Did your other half grumble about having too much work to do? Did your boss complain about a difficult client? Or perhaps you were the one to whinge. Everyone has the right to bellyache on the occasional off-day, but the constant and unchecked whining of a habitual moaner is a contagion that can bring down even the strongest team.

Unfortunately, low-level miserableness is as much a part of British life as warm beer, drizzle and delayed trains.

Resentful defeatism appears to be our national coping mechanism: as one Wife Swap contender put it: 'Life's a bitch, get used to it.' But the British haven't cornered the market in complaining. 'Germans are the world's most inveterate whingers and bellyachers,' says Ramona Wonneberger, joint head of German IT company Nutzwerk. She has introduced a 'two moans and you're out' policy to halt the flow of 'negative energy' within her company.

There seems to be as much negative energy ebbing around French businesses too (for more on this subject, see feature starting on p32). 'Companies don't care,' wrote Corinne Maier in her surprise bestseller Bonjour Paresse ('Hello Laziness') two years ago. 'They have no real concern for your wellbeing and they don't practise whatever "values" they preach.' An economist at French utility EDF, she frankly classifies managers as homo economicus cretinus.

Her manifesto for idling and capitalist subversion has clearly tapped into a European Zeitgeist of workplace cynicism, in diametric contrast to the American 'can-do' approach to all matters corporate.

Says Sam Scott of The Mind Gym: 'Moaning is a pessimistic outlook on everything. It can have dramatic effects on those in the surrounding area.' The change of mood causes a drop in morale, a loss of a sense of purpose and general all-round negativity. 'It also has a direct effect on our own sense of self. Self-confidence suffers, energy drops, and there is a bleak outlook on life.'

Anyone who has worked in an office with a resident moaner will know that their querulousness can suck the life out of you. But if they are managed competently, corporate sceptics can be turned into a useful addition to office life. Having someone on the team who flaunts a healthy disregard for authority and management diktats can be valuable - so long as their subversion is effectively harnessed.

'These are people who can see what kinds of things will trip you up,' says Mike Leibling, consultant and author of How People Tick. Moaners will pick holes in over-optimistic plans and always present the downside of the argument. We should be grateful to have them. 'Moaning is in the eye of the beholder,' adds Leibling.

So, how do you go about effectively managing your resident whinger? First, appreciate that you can't just shut them up. 'You won't stop the moaning by telling people to stop moaning,' warns MT's agony uncle, Jeremy Bullmore. 'They'll just moan about being told what to do.'

Realise instead that you have a problem, the root of which you need to get to - and fast. 'As Tony Blair might say, you need to be tough on the causes of moaning,' he adds. As soon as a moaner is identified - and you'll hear them - take immediate action to find out what's causing the discontent.

The best way to do this is through an informal meeting. No confrontations, no shouting matches, just a calm and friendly chat over a coffee away from the office. Bill it as a progress meeting, and allow plenty of time to chat.

'It will be a delicate conversation, but one you must have,' says writer and broadcaster Philippa Lamb.

During your discussion, you need to cover four key points. First, that you've noticed that they seem to be unhappy and, second, why this might be. You can either lead into the specifics of their whingeing by asking them general questions about how they've been getting on in their role.

Or you can say you've heard them complaining and wondered what was causing it. 'Be receptive and encourage them to talk,' says Lamb. 'Do not tell them they are making everyone's life a misery and are irritating to you personally.'

People moan for a number of reasons: some for attention, some because they have a low tolerance of frustration, others because they feel that responsibility lies elsewhere (this is known as external locus of control).

If it transpires that the person is dealing with difficult problems outside work, Lamb counsels not playing the agony aunt - avoid venturing into deeply personal territory. 'If work is the problem, then things are much more straightforward,' she says. 'Generally, it's not that difficult to turn whingers around if it's about work.' A shift in job responsibilities, some recognition of their hard work or dealing with legitimate complaints will immediately lift spirits.

The third point you need to make clear to your employee is that their moaning is having a real and negative effect on those around them. But be warned: many habitual moaners would never recognise themselves as such.

'Whining or complaining is a type of patterned behaviour,' writes Shaun Belding in Winning with the Employee from Hell. 'Most people who behave this way in your business environment behave the same way in their social environments. And most don't realise they're whining to the extent they are.'

To tell someone that they are a Moaning Minnie might come as a shock and cause them to clam up and withdraw from office life. Be sensitive to their feelings and allow them to be upset, but - and this is the fourth point - you must make it clear that their current behaviour cannot continue.

Firmly let them know you are concerned about their wellbeing - and the team's - and that things need to change.

'The key to managing moaners is to remember it is not about suppression, it's about reappraisal,' says The Mind Gym's Scott. Arranging follow-up meetings is essential here. After your initial discussion on neutral ground, give the person time to absorb what you've told them (a week should be enough), then arrange another meeting, this time in the office, to ask them how they feel about things. The attention you've given them might well have been enough to buck them up. If things haven't changed, ask them what else needs to happen. But, warns Scott, 'be aware there is a vicious cycle when it comes to moaning. An individual moans, their needs are seen to, they moan some more, more needs are seen to, and it becomes a slippery downward spiral.'

The best thing, however, is not to let the moaning happen in the first place. 'Lead by example,' says Scott. 'If you don't want others to moan, be sure not to moan yourself. Remember you need to model the positive mood and behaviours you want others to be delivering.' Similarly, 'When recruiting, ask people to share stories of when things have gone wrong in the past and how they have dealt with it. Do they react with words such as "challenge", "learning", "discover" or the more negative lines of "unsupported", "no control", "lack of direction"? Research shows that those who frame things as challenges are much happier individuals.'

Regular appraisals (ideally, every six months) are perfect for airing problems and preventing troubles escalating into resentment. Effective managers won't let moaning take them by surprise. 'Managing moaners is only very difficult if they've been allowed to become admired and significant figures in the firm,' says Bullmore. 'Once they've become role models, moaners are as hard to root out as ground elder.' Unfortunately, if it's the chief exec who's the perpetual moaner, just accept that, sometimes, life can be a bitch.

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