As business leaders, we often need to bring employees together from varied backgrounds. This means hiring people who have different perspectives, personalities, and experiences. While this diversity can be great, it can also lead to differences in opinions and interpersonal conflicts.
One of the manifestations of these types of conflicts is the perennial issue of employees complaining about one another. These complaints, if left unchecked, can erode all of the progress you are attempting to make as a leader.
Yet, it’s crucial to understand that not all complaints arise from petty disagreements or trivial matters. Some might be a sign of deeper, systemic issues within the organization that demand attention. Other times employees complaining about each other are about the employees themselves and their relationship with each other. Whatever the reason, addressing the complaints requires a strategic approach. In this article, we’ll look at how you can stop employees from complaining about each other.
The Problem With Complaining
According to Will Bowen the best-selling author of “A Complaint-Free World”, the average person complains between 15 to 30 times a day. While there are some benefits to complaining about things in order to create a better outcome, most of the complaining in the workplace is not beneficial to the environment or even to the people complaining. In fact, a 1996 Stanford University study found that complaining shrinks the hippocampus; the part of the brain that plays a vital role in regulating learning, memory encoding, and memory consolidation.
While some leaders may chalk up complaining to just having negative employees, all complaints are not equal. Sometimes, complaints can be a sign of serious problems. This is especially true in the case of harassment, policy violations, or any type of serious issue. If the complaints from your employees fall into this realm, you or your HR representative need to take immediate action to prevent a disaster from happening.
Understanding the level of seriousness of the complaint will help you make the right moves. That starts with understanding the different types of complaining. Here are four of the major ones.
- Productive complaining: This is when the complaints are constructive and address real problems that will make the team, business, and situation better.
- Malicious complaining: Complaints that fall into this category are destructive and are done to undermine other employees or leaders.
- Chronic complaining: This is when an employee complains about nearly everything. Usually, this is done by people who many think of as “complainers”.
- Venting: This type of complaining is when a person complains out of frustration or bottled-up stress. Venting can temporarily relieve stress for the person who is doing it. However, if venting happens regularly, it can spread to other employees and become destructive.
Assess if the Complaints are Valid
In many companies, complaints can act as symptoms of underlying problems. It could be because of the different working styles of the employees. It could also be because there is a good reason for the complaints. To manage them effectively, you must first determine if the complaints are valid. Leaders should have direct conversations with the complainants to deeply understand their concerns. This process shows the complainants that their voices are heard. It also allows leaders to gather first-hand insights.
However, leaders should maintain a balanced perspective. They need to recognize that some complaints are influenced by personal biases. Others can also come from external factors unrelated to the workplace. For instance, an employee might feel bad because they are not invited to casual after-work gatherings.
While their feeling of exclusion is genuine, the issue might stem from personal choices to not build relationships with their co-workers during work hours rather than workplace discrimination. That’s why distinguishing between personal grievances and genuine organizational concerns is pivotal. This differentiation helps prioritize actionable solutions and guides addressing the root causes of these complaints.
Set Expectations about Complaining About Others
One of the best ways to deal with employees complaining about each other is to start with setting clear expectations. While it’s natural for employees to express concerns, there’s a difference between constructive feedback and detrimental complaining. Even small businesses need a code of conduct. Within that code, you can emphasize positive engagement as the way the company expects employees to communicate with each other.
Regular training sessions can reinforce these expectations. Leaders should always educate employees about the nuances of constructive criticism. Also, they should warn about the pitfalls of unbridled negativity.
To reinforce this expectation, leaders need to redirect the situation towards solutions when the complaining starts. For example, if a manager or supervisor hears some employees complaining about another, the supervisor or manager may approach the speaking employees to offer solutions to the problem.
They could suggest a meeting with the employees to help resolve any conflicts or disagreements. During that exchange, the leader could remind the employees that just complaining about other employees does not offer any positive contribution to the team’s success.
Resolve Any Conflicts
Sometimes, at the heart of all of the complaining, are internal conflicts among the employees. If this is an issue, then employees complaining about each other is just the symptom of much deeper issues. These issues will need to be solved to stop the employees from complaining about each other.
Sometimes employees just don’t get along. Other times their working styles are not compatible. Whatever the reason, resolving it starts with a talking things out. However, not all conflicts can be resolved through casual conversations. For more ingrained or complex issues, structured mediation might be necessary.
Monitor the Situation Closely
Once you’ve reached a solution, the focus shifts to monitoring. Resolutions, while effective on paper, might require adjustments when implemented. Periodically check in with the concerned employees to see if there have been any changes. At that point, leaders can gauge the success of the solutions. They can also make necessary modifications.
They may also need to use a feedback mechanism of some kind. Ideally, you should opt for an anonymous one where employees can give their opinion. This offers employees a platform to voice any lingering or new concerns without fear of direct repercussions. This proactive approach allows for early detection and intervention. This will prevent minor grievances from snowballing into significant issues.
Don’t Participate in the Complaining
Leaders are often responsible for establishing and maintaining workplace culture. When employees complain about each other, leaders must refrain from participating in the chatter. This is important for several reasons. Firstly, leaders must uphold a standard of impartiality and fairness. Engaging in complaints can compromise this position. As soon as a leader begins to complain right along with the employees they are validating those complaints. This can be seen as a clear sign of favoritism.
Secondly, by participating in such discussions, leaders risk amplifying negativity and gossip within the workplace. All of which distracts from a constructive workplace environment. Instead of focusing on growth and productivity, people begin to stew in resentment and divisiveness.
One of the worst effects of leaders complaining right along with their employees is the diminishing of their authority and credibility. Business owners, supervisors, and managers should be held to a higher standard than other employees. This is just something that comes with the job. When leaders begin to take part in something so obviously destructive, it can cause team members to lose respect. Especially from those employees who are not the complainers.
Instead of participating, leaders should redirect the conversation towards finding solutions. For example, if an employee begins to complain about another employee, the leader could say something like, “Maybe we should find a way to correct that in a way that works best for everyone”. They may also try to redirect the conversation to the positives of the people or situation that is being talked about.
Separate Employees If Needed
Sometimes, in order to keep the complaints from continuing, the employees involved need to be separated. There are instances when this type of destructive workplace activity is mostly between a few employees who work in the same department, same team, or near each other. When working styles clash and the employees can’t seem to work well together a more drastic measure is necessary.
If you feel that it is best to separate the employees, have a meeting about the possible solution. The separation can be done by switching shifts, moving desks or workstations around so the employees are not working next to each other, or moving an employee to another team or department that is best suited for them.
Separating employees due to constant complaining or conflicts is not ideal. In a perfect world, leaders would love to find a solution where the employees work things out in a harmonious way. However, that’s not always possible and leaders cannot afford to let complaining undermine the goals of the company.
Managing employee complaints is more than just addressing immediate concerns. It is about getting to the heart of issues in the workplace. Embrace these strategies to cultivate an environment where complaints give way to constructive dialogues, and every team member feels valued and heard.