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Curbing a culture of complainers


No one likes a complainer. They are thought to be looking for the negative in any situation, clouding the mood of the company, and enticing an audience to share in their woes. It can feel like they are always trying to dial down the positivity of whatever room they’re in.

There are, however, different kinds of complaints – and different kinds of complainers. By examining the benefits of these bellyachers, a culture of complainers can be successfully transformed into a meaningful source of innovation for your workplace.

What is a complainer?

There are a number of reasons that can cause an employee to complain.

Frontline workers often see inefficient processes their manager cannot. Sometimes, someone is being bullied or harassed and their own attempts to deal with it informally have not been successful. Other times, an employee highlights a cultural shift in society and challenges their workplace to grapple with Reconciliation, diversity, or four-day work weeks.

These are all excellent examples of how employees can ask for help and give their perspective to inspire change and motivate solutions.

However, in the day-to-day world of work, this is definitely not always the case.

Most harmful complaining is an emotional response, without thinking of long-term consequences. A complainer may be experiencing burnout, or it may be an indicator the current workplace cannot meet that employee’s needs. Complaining brings with it an atmosphere of hopelessness and negative energy, and people can get caught seeing the worst side of work when they are stressed.

Complainers wield more influence than companies may realize – they can erode team atmosphere and stall productivity. It takes a present and clear approach for managers to recognize what form of faultfinder they have in their midst.

The different kinds of complainers

To better understand these nuances, let us first explore the different kinds of complainers.

Malicious complainers

Malicious complainers are gossipers who try to affect others’ reputations to gain personal favour or fulfil a revenge fantasy. They are toxic to workplace culture and should be dealt with promptly.

The destructive consequences of an unchecked malicious complainer can include objections of unfair treatment, loss of productivity, and eventually, turnover – as people choose to leave an organization rather than subject themselves to these types of attacks.

It is important employees feel empowered to report and expose malicious complainers. Positive workplace culture is protected by bringing this dark behaviour into the light.

Chronic complainers

Chronic complainers complain about everything from the room temperature to the ‘good old days’ in the office – it can feel like an endless litany of little criticisms.

But there are likely kernels of truth mixed in with a chronic complainer’s list of laments – and by listening, you can gain valuable insight into worthwhile areas for organizational improvement.

As a manager, seeking out input from this type of employee before a new rollout (be it a new process, product, or project) can help spot undiscovered problems and bugs and save a few headaches.

It can also boost a chronic complainer’s confidence to see purposeful change they were supported to bring forward.


Venting is intermittent and intense and a way for a worker to process emotions, stress, and injustice.

 As long as it is directed at an audience that can handle the onslaught, venting to a trusted source allows employees to connect with each other with compassion,
find workplace allies, and gain perspective on an upsetting issue.

However, venting can overwhelm employees – and managers! – and leave people feeling dragged down by what they are hearing. There are ways to guide a venting session into productive complaining with an open mind and a few good questions.

Productive complainers

The last (and best) kind of complainer is a productive complainer.

Productive complainers are not in positions of power – yet they have the organization’s best interests in mind. This kind of complainer reveals issues encountered during their workday or concerns regarding actions that threaten to jeopardize your organization’s image.

Examples of productive complaints include bringing to light holes in a policy, mentioning how the status quo may not make all employees feel welcome, or indicating areas where a company’s values are not being exercised.

A manager’s ear must always be listening to complaints to uncover the ones that may be genuine red flags of a larger problem.

Steering toward more productive protest 

To steer a complaining employee into a place of productive complaining is a bit of an artform.

First, managers need to search for valid complaints in what can seem like a sea of dissatisfaction. They need to discover and learn what is currently actually wrong and ask as many questions as it takes to come to a viable solution.

As an employee, when bringing forth a complaint, thinking to the future helps focus on the stakes of an issue and brainstorm ideas. Coming to the table with not only an objection – but also an outcome you would like to see – is a great way to have a challenging conversation with your manager when work is not meeting your needs or expectations.

When this is done effectively, the results can be amazing.

Complaining employees feel heard, and solutions (or multiple ideas) are generated to practically deal with a nagging problem. Managers become regarded as responsive, respectful, and considerate.

Best of all, an entire organization becomes more valuable, thanks to an individual’s keen observations and bravery for coming forward – and a company’s openness to being curious about difficult feedback.

Often when we hear a complainer, we have an urge to turn away. People complain when they feel like they have no control over changing a situation by themselves.

As a manager, you may not be able to fix the weather, but you may be able to fix some of your people’s complaints by supporting them when dealing with difficult interactions, recognizing and changing the workplace to make employees’ daily lives better, or just being an understanding ear so they can get the venting out … and get back to work.


Do you need assistance dealing with complainers? Legacy Bowes is here to help and guide you through the process. Don't hesitate to contact us today to find out more. 


*Originally published with the Winnipeg Free Press on June 10, 2023: link

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