Leadership In Action: Handling That Constantly Complaining Co-Worker

learning and development consulting
Episode 060: Working Through the Messy Middle
October 23, 2018
I Wonder How She Does It Series – In conversation with: Chelsea Ramsey, Learning and Development Manager, Horizon Media
March 14, 2019

Leadership In Action: Handling That Constantly Complaining Co-Worker


We’ve all been there – on the receiving end of that one co-worker who can’t seem to find the good in anything going on, and finds even the most trivial situations to be egregious and an affront to them (i.e. coffee machine broken). 

You may even feel like you’ve been somehow especially anointed as the chosen one to hear aforementioned co-worker’s constant griping, and it’s starting to impact your work, how people perceive you at work and your own engagement at work – all of which are no bueno.

But I’m here to tell you that the news is not all bad. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say there is ample reason to celebrate your predicament. Why?

  1. This is a chance to show real leadership. There are ways to really flex that leadership muscle and get noticed by senior management.
  2. You actually don’t need to deal with this. There are ways to flip the script on those Negative Nancys in your office.
  3. Flipping the script doesn’t have to be awkward, confrontational and hard.

So are you ready to take Complaining Cal off your list of worries and turn his wingeing into a positive for your career? 

Let’s do it.

Step 1: Understand why people complain. There are different reasons, but two of the big ones are to get attention and play the victim and both of those reasons actually go hand in hand together quite nicely. If they place blame outside of themselves, then they’re not responsible for the clean-up, the logic goes. 

Step 2: Ask one simple question. “What’s going well for you, Cal?” One simple question, asked in a thoughtful, curious way (read: not sarcastic) can turn the entire conversation around, and after a few go-arounds of this, might open Cal’s eyes up to his complaining ways. And if not, and he just wants to complain, you signaling to him that you want to focus on what’s going right will lead him to take his griping elsewhere. 

Step 3: Point out that they have agency. It’s ok for people to talk about their problems, but not if they stick in Problem Land for too long. You want them to move to Solutionville. Asking, “What ideas or ways forward are at your disposal to move out of this stuck place?” Can change the whole game and puts you in the position of being seen to help colleagues brainstorm and move forward- a key characteristic successful leaders share.

Step 4: Know that people can change. We aren’t static beings, so just because Jessica has complained since you met her doesn’t mean she’s always going to be a complainer. So give people a break and try not to cast judgment too quickly. 

I know this firsthand as a Reformed Complainer (RC). Shortly after college, I was working in a fast paced role and I found out a lot of my college friends thought I complained too much. This realization, while it stung at the time, came at the best time possible because I started to see how I was complaining in the working world too- and how much it had the potential to hold me back. So I flipped the script on myself. I can’t say that I never complain ever now – that would be a lie – but life and opportunities big and small flow much more freely than they did back in the day.

So now it’s your turn: What’s one way you will flip the script on the complainer in your life (even if that complainer is you)?