Will somebody please tell me — how come people are whining about whiners?
Yes, I’m talking about you, Sue Shellenbarger. Normally a very positive person, the Work & Family columnist for “The Wall Street Journal” recently wrote an extremely negative article titled “What to Do With a Workplace Whiner.” Surprisingly, Shellenbarger’s answer was not to immediately promote the whiner and give them a big fat raise. Instead, she brought in a bunch of workplace experts who brought up a bunch of techniques to stifle whiners. I don’t want to complain, but that’s not nice.
Nor is it smart. Whiners play an important part of our efforts to promote progress. And that’s not just my opinion; that’s history. If it weren’t for cavemen complainers, we’d never have invented fire, or footy pajamas or Honey Boo Boo. You’d still be sitting in a cold cave, in a loincloth, watching a rock.
If whiners are a problem in your workplace, you may want to try some of suggestions from Shellenbarger’s experts. According to Dana Brownlee, a corporate trainer, staying neutral by just listening and nodding can backfire. “Before you know it,” Brownlee suggests, “there’s another version of the story circulating, saying you were the one saying something negative about the VP. And they’re talking about you over by the Coke machine.”
Of course, you already know they’re talking about you over by the Coke machine, and over by the coffee machine and over by the copying machine, too. That’s the price of being beautiful, brilliant and completely paranoid. On the other hand, Jon Gordon, an author and consultant, cautions against directly complaining to complainers. “They may take it in a completely wrong way,” he says, “and then you’ve alienated them.”
It’s difficult to see how someone could take a comment like “you’re a loudmouth moron who doesn’t know when to shut his yap” the wrong way, but it will be equally difficult to adopt Mr. Gordon’s remedy, which is to “set an example by not griping yourself.” This is what Kris Whitehead, a salesman, discovered when he tried to overcome the “secret fears” he shared with complaining colleagues with the suggestion that they “focus instead on solutions.”
“No one wanted to listen,” Whitehead reported, plus “people started talking about me at the water cooler.”
[Whether being talked about at the Coke machine is worse than getting talked about talking at the water cooler is a question Shellenbarger doesn’t answer. I suggest you talk about it at the beer machine at the Kit Kat Klub, and get back to me.]
Even if complainers do not have a valid complaint, they can cause emotional damage. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology at Stanford University, finds that exposure to nonstop negativity can disrupt learning, memory, attention and judgment. The brain, he says, “can only handle so many stimuli at once before it begins losing ability to concentrate or remember.”
This could explain the difficulty you have in remembering critical information, such as the number of your boss’ Swiss bank account or which Kardashian sister is married to which Jonas Brother. And speaking of bosses, the CEO of PaceButler, Tom Pace, was so fed up with employee grousing and grumbling that he established a $500 prize for employees who could refrain from complaints or gossip for one week.
That would definitely work in your workplace, except that you’d have to wait until 2015 to collect. That’s how long it would take to get over the complaints that $500 wasn’t enough money, and anyway, the winner would have to pay tax on the money, thanks to the unfair U.S. tax code, and the boss would probably choose his favorites, as usual, and besides, if the boss had money to throw away on $500 prizes, he wasn’t paying the employees enough, and why don’t we have Reese’s Pieces in the snack machine?
Perhaps the best suggestion to counter complainers comes author and speaker Will Bowen who recommends responding to grumbling grumblers with a cheery, “What’s going well for you?” Bowen predicts, “The person will either switch topics or stop talking to you. Either way, you don’t have to listen to them any more.”
This is true, but it’s not much fun, and it could reduce the chances of your co-workers listening to your complaints, which are totally valid and very important. I say keep complaining, and if you don’t want other people to bother you with their trivial complaints, do what I do — stuff your ears with Reese’s Pieces.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.