Sick of the chronic complainer? Here’s how to fix their behaviour


Chronic complainers lower team morale and can be a drain on your brain, but we need to treat them with kindness and compassion if we want them to quit whining.

The weather is too cold. Your typing is too loud for them. The barista got their coffee order wrong. This music is too distracting. 

The gripes aired by a chronic complainer make it seem like there’s no end to their incessant whining in sight. Any attempts to interrupt the negativity spiral and lift a chronic complainer’s gloomy mood with a glimmer of positivity are quickly shut down.

It’s easy to either be drawn into their cycle of whinging and join the complaining club, or steer clear of them altogether. But the sweet spot probably lies somewhere in between. To put an end to their incessant whinging, you need to bring a chronic complainer closer, and find a point of mutual understanding.

What’s with all the whining?

Complaining is an expression of internal discomfort.

“It’s the externalisation of a feeling,” says psychologist Dr Amy Silver, who runs workshops with organisations on managing emotions for high performance. “It’s pushing something away that is internal and then voicing it in such a way to make it somebody else’s problem.

It’s typically employed as a psychological strategy to avoid confronting difficult feelings and experiences.

“By externalising or pushing the attention somewhere else it means the chronic complainer doesn’t need to recognise that they don’t feel positive, or that they don’t have the skills or energy to fix the problem themselves, or that they don’t feel they have the control over their own life to make choices.

Being stuck in a chronic state of complaining is also highly stressful, which can have a damaging impact on the brain.

What is a chronic complainer doing to our brains?

Unrelenting whining doesn’t just affect the complainer; it’s also drawing others into an orbit of pessimism.

The negative impact chronic complainers have on those around them can be understood through the phenomenon of emotional contagion.

“Emotions are 100 per cent transferable,” says Silver. “We use other people’s cues to work out what our current state is. If other people perceive threat or risk, then we will too.”

Communications expert Mel Kettle previously managed a chronic complainer in her former role with the Queensland government.

“She complained about an enormous number of things, but she was also deeply unhappy with her life. I think she felt she’d made bad choices or felt that the world was conspiring against her, and she didn’t know how to be happy,” says Kettle.

“As that person’s manager, it was hard for me because I’m a really positive person, and I felt like she was whining all the time.

“If you asked her for feedback, it would always be negative. If you complimented on her something, you’d receive a negative response. Working with her was emotionally exhausting.”

The chronic complainer’s behaviour had a negative flow-on effect to other employees as well.

“It drags the morale of the whole team down, and it can lead to poor productivity and poor interpersonal relationships, and positive relationships in the team can break down as well.

“We all know the expression, ‘misery loves company’. It’s often really difficult to step away from that.”


Learn more about how to manage difficult emotions and behaviours in AHRI’s Applied Emotional Intelligence short course.


Ascertain why they complain

It’s possible to turn a chronic complainer’s behaviour around, but doing so requires a finely tuned balance of curiosity, patience, compassion and connection.

To understand why a chronic complainer stays on the hamster wheel of never-ending complaints, Kettle advises posing questions and narrowing in on the problem.

“When someone complains about something, work out if they have valid reasons for complaining. Are they complaining because they feel overworked or not listened to? Are they struggling with their job, or do they feel disenfranchised about the organisation? They might just be a bad fit for the job so they complain about everything, or is it a bigger issue than that for them personally?”

“If you’ve got somebody who constantly complains, ask them, ‘What do you think could be done better? How would you solve this problem? What could we do differently?’ It shows that you’re listening to them, but that you’re also seeking their advice, which means sometimes they might solve the problem for themselves.”

It might also be tempting for some employees to steer clear of a chronic complainer who is spoiling team morale, but this type of approach is the antithesis of what a chronic complainer probably needs. 

“Try to understand the behaviour as you would understand somebody who is hungry. It’s signalling that a need isn’t being met, so have compassion for that, but don’t get caught up in over listening to the complaint,” says Silver.

While it’s wise to disengage from the behaviour itself, don’t disengage from the person, urges Silver.

“Stay in compassion while you are helping that person to stop complaining. If you meet it with an equally externalised opinion, then you are going to magnify everything and not get into a human to human deeper connection.”

Rectifying the behaviour involves empowering the chronic complainer with the courage to turn inwards, and consider how they might modify their own thought processes, and take greater control of their life and decisions. 

Engaging a complainer in a deeper conversation about the emotions driving their behaviour can be daunting, but Silver encourages leaning into the fear, rather than responding to the behaviour alone.

Have the courage to start a transparent and open conversation which you can only do when there’s psychological safety. Create a safe environment for a courageous conversation that allows them to talk about the behaviour without it being personal.”

In approaching the conversation, Silver also recommends finding a shared vision and common point of understanding. “Complainers want things to get better and so do you. Draw out the connection between what you both want, which puts you on the same page. It doesn’t have to be a battle.”

“If you asked her for feedback, it would always be negative. If you complimented on her something, you’d receive a negative response. Working with her was emotionally exhausting.” – Mel Kettle, communications expert.

If all avenues for correcting the chronic complainer’s behaviour have been exhausted (including engaging an external counsellor, coach or psychotherapist, if deemed appropriate), it may be time to ask whether the employee is the right fit for the company. 

“Sometimes the only result is to let them go,” says Kettle.

She advises managing chronic complaining like any poor performer: do the groundwork to help them get better but don’t be afraid to make tough choices.

“You need to think about the entire team, not just the good of one person.

“You have to think about your organisational values, and what you are prepared to put up with. If you accept chronic complaining from high performing team members, then does that say because they’re high performing we’ll put up with their bad behaviour?”

She urges organisations to consider the ramifications of inadvertently accepting the bad behaviour. It may, for instance, increase levels of anxiety for the rest of the team, leading to strong performing team members deciding it’s time to exit.

Act in advance 

Before chronic complaining escalates into a bigger problem, there are a few preventative strategies that can be put in place:

  • Foster a positive culture through team-bonding and positive reinforcement exercises. “You could start off every team meeting with a gratitude activity, or ask everyone to article three things they are looking forward to that day,” says Kettle.
  • Outline your values by running a workshop which defines the behaviour you expect from your team. “[You might say] this is how we work as a team. This is what we accept as a team. This is the kind of behaviour we won’t put up with. Then support each other to make sure  the good behaviours are reinforced and the bad ones are called out and worked on  together to change.””
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Julie Logie-Edwards
Julie Logie-Edwards
6 months ago

“Sometimes the only result is to let them go, says Kettle”. Very easily said, very difficult to do. Even with performance management, with all avenues explored, being a chronic complainer isn’t grounds for a valid dismissal.

More on HRM

Sick of the chronic complainer? Here’s how to fix their behaviour


Chronic complainers lower team morale and can be a drain on your brain, but we need to treat them with kindness and compassion if we want them to quit whining.

The weather is too cold. Your typing is too loud for them. The barista got their coffee order wrong. This music is too distracting. 

The gripes aired by a chronic complainer make it seem like there’s no end to their incessant whining in sight. Any attempts to interrupt the negativity spiral and lift a chronic complainer’s gloomy mood with a glimmer of positivity are quickly shut down.

It’s easy to either be drawn into their cycle of whinging and join the complaining club, or steer clear of them altogether. But the sweet spot probably lies somewhere in between. To put an end to their incessant whinging, you need to bring a chronic complainer closer, and find a point of mutual understanding.

What’s with all the whining?

Complaining is an expression of internal discomfort.

“It’s the externalisation of a feeling,” says psychologist Dr Amy Silver, who runs workshops with organisations on managing emotions for high performance. “It’s pushing something away that is internal and then voicing it in such a way to make it somebody else’s problem.

It’s typically employed as a psychological strategy to avoid confronting difficult feelings and experiences.

“By externalising or pushing the attention somewhere else it means the chronic complainer doesn’t need to recognise that they don’t feel positive, or that they don’t have the skills or energy to fix the problem themselves, or that they don’t feel they have the control over their own life to make choices.

Being stuck in a chronic state of complaining is also highly stressful, which can have a damaging impact on the brain.

What is a chronic complainer doing to our brains?

Unrelenting whining doesn’t just affect the complainer; it’s also drawing others into an orbit of pessimism.

The negative impact chronic complainers have on those around them can be understood through the phenomenon of emotional contagion.

“Emotions are 100 per cent transferable,” says Silver. “We use other people’s cues to work out what our current state is. If other people perceive threat or risk, then we will too.”

Communications expert Mel Kettle previously managed a chronic complainer in her former role with the Queensland government.

“She complained about an enormous number of things, but she was also deeply unhappy with her life. I think she felt she’d made bad choices or felt that the world was conspiring against her, and she didn’t know how to be happy,” says Kettle.

“As that person’s manager, it was hard for me because I’m a really positive person, and I felt like she was whining all the time.

“If you asked her for feedback, it would always be negative. If you complimented on her something, you’d receive a negative response. Working with her was emotionally exhausting.”

The chronic complainer’s behaviour had a negative flow-on effect to other employees as well.

“It drags the morale of the whole team down, and it can lead to poor productivity and poor interpersonal relationships, and positive relationships in the team can break down as well.

“We all know the expression, ‘misery loves company’. It’s often really difficult to step away from that.”


Learn more about how to manage difficult emotions and behaviours in AHRI’s Applied Emotional Intelligence short course.


Ascertain why they complain

It’s possible to turn a chronic complainer’s behaviour around, but doing so requires a finely tuned balance of curiosity, patience, compassion and connection.

To understand why a chronic complainer stays on the hamster wheel of never-ending complaints, Kettle advises posing questions and narrowing in on the problem.

“When someone complains about something, work out if they have valid reasons for complaining. Are they complaining because they feel overworked or not listened to? Are they struggling with their job, or do they feel disenfranchised about the organisation? They might just be a bad fit for the job so they complain about everything, or is it a bigger issue than that for them personally?”

“If you’ve got somebody who constantly complains, ask them, ‘What do you think could be done better? How would you solve this problem? What could we do differently?’ It shows that you’re listening to them, but that you’re also seeking their advice, which means sometimes they might solve the problem for themselves.”

It might also be tempting for some employees to steer clear of a chronic complainer who is spoiling team morale, but this type of approach is the antithesis of what a chronic complainer probably needs. 

“Try to understand the behaviour as you would understand somebody who is hungry. It’s signalling that a need isn’t being met, so have compassion for that, but don’t get caught up in over listening to the complaint,” says Silver.

While it’s wise to disengage from the behaviour itself, don’t disengage from the person, urges Silver.

“Stay in compassion while you are helping that person to stop complaining. If you meet it with an equally externalised opinion, then you are going to magnify everything and not get into a human to human deeper connection.”

Rectifying the behaviour involves empowering the chronic complainer with the courage to turn inwards, and consider how they might modify their own thought processes, and take greater control of their life and decisions. 

Engaging a complainer in a deeper conversation about the emotions driving their behaviour can be daunting, but Silver encourages leaning into the fear, rather than responding to the behaviour alone.

Have the courage to start a transparent and open conversation which you can only do when there’s psychological safety. Create a safe environment for a courageous conversation that allows them to talk about the behaviour without it being personal.”

In approaching the conversation, Silver also recommends finding a shared vision and common point of understanding. “Complainers want things to get better and so do you. Draw out the connection between what you both want, which puts you on the same page. It doesn’t have to be a battle.”

“If you asked her for feedback, it would always be negative. If you complimented on her something, you’d receive a negative response. Working with her was emotionally exhausting.” – Mel Kettle, communications expert.

If all avenues for correcting the chronic complainer’s behaviour have been exhausted (including engaging an external counsellor, coach or psychotherapist, if deemed appropriate), it may be time to ask whether the employee is the right fit for the company. 

“Sometimes the only result is to let them go,” says Kettle.

She advises managing chronic complaining like any poor performer: do the groundwork to help them get better but don’t be afraid to make tough choices.

“You need to think about the entire team, not just the good of one person.

“You have to think about your organisational values, and what you are prepared to put up with. If you accept chronic complaining from high performing team members, then does that say because they’re high performing we’ll put up with their bad behaviour?”

She urges organisations to consider the ramifications of inadvertently accepting the bad behaviour. It may, for instance, increase levels of anxiety for the rest of the team, leading to strong performing team members deciding it’s time to exit.

Act in advance 

Before chronic complaining escalates into a bigger problem, there are a few preventative strategies that can be put in place:

  • Foster a positive culture through team-bonding and positive reinforcement exercises. “You could start off every team meeting with a gratitude activity, or ask everyone to article three things they are looking forward to that day,” says Kettle.
  • Outline your values by running a workshop which defines the behaviour you expect from your team. “[You might say] this is how we work as a team. This is what we accept as a team. This is the kind of behaviour we won’t put up with. Then support each other to make sure  the good behaviours are reinforced and the bad ones are called out and worked on  together to change.””
guest
3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Julie Logie-Edwards
Julie Logie-Edwards
6 months ago

“Sometimes the only result is to let them go, says Kettle”. Very easily said, very difficult to do. Even with performance management, with all avenues explored, being a chronic complainer isn’t grounds for a valid dismissal.

More on HRM