Does this sound familiar? “Why is it so hard to get a promotion?” and “How come I never get the recognition I deserve?” Ahh, workplace whining!

One of my common responses is, “Get over it or get out.” That’s probably not the best option for most managers.

Even though I have 2 small children at home,  the most annoying examples of whining happen in client offices I visit. For some reason, adults forget what they were told as children: if you want something, ask nicely; don’t whine. I’ll define whining as overt and repetitive complaining that has an extreme “woe is me” nature. Here’s how to tackle it.

#1  Distinguish it from venting.

Venting is honestly sharing frustrations and disappointments with the appropriate people.
I firmly believe and see great value in it. It releases steam in a confined manner.  As a leader, you want your team to vent to you, 1:1, not to each other–outside, when venting quickly can turn into–shhh, bitching. When an employee complains about a person or project, ask him this: “Are you venting? Or are you asking me to give you ideas on how to change your situation?” If the answer is venting, then sit back and absorb. Allow him to unload privately.

#2  Take a firm no whining allowed stance.

There is no role for whining in the workplace. It’s unproductive: no matter who does it, why, and when. As a leader, you must state to your team that it is an undesirable behavior. Be upfront–in 1:1 and group meetings–that whining is destructive, wasteful, and, quite honestly, lazy. You want ideas and solutions: not complaints that include a lot of “how comes,” “why mes,” and “I never gets.” Consistent negativity and hands thrown up in the air: go back to high school (can we play some of the Grease soundtrack? Just kidding.”)

#3  Call people on it.

People become whiners when they begin to complain openly and often and no one addresses the behavior as unproductive. Don’t be the manager who breeds whiners. Instead, identify the words and phrases that peg the person as a whiner and what she can say instead. Say something like, “Lisa, I want to point you how your thoughts are coming off as complaints. When you say things like this, ‘How come you like her idea? You don’t like any of mine!’ or ‘I never get a chance to a conference. I’m always stuck here,’ it tells me you’re happy. If that’s the case, let’s talk about it – 1:1. The way you’re expressing yourself labels you someone who merely complains. This is a behavior I’ve observed a good deal of in the last month. Here’s what I want you to do instead.”

As a leader, you must identify the whiners, call them on it, and tell them what to say or do instead. Once someone starts to whine and you ignore it, it spreads like wildfire during a hot, dry California summer. Everyone begins to whine; it becomes the cool thing to do.

I don’t want to compare the people you work with – your peers, your subordinates, and your superiors – to children, but the analogy is occasionally spot on. Why? They whine because it draws attention to them; they’re in the spotlight and people are looking and listening. Don’t feed the fire. Stay firm – at least in the workplace – if not with your children as well – and send the message that whining won’t get you what you want!

© Leila Bulling Towne  2010

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