How to Deal with Coworkers Who Complain

People who complain all the time are just Debbie Downers. Here's how to deal with them.

Stever Robbins
6-minute read
Episode #441

A listener writes:

Oh, Get-it-Done Guy! Do you have any recommendations on how to deal with a coworker who complains incessantly?

Ooh!! We just love complainers!! No, we don’t. We hate complainers. They’re always complaining. And we don’t like their clothes. And they put two spaces after a period, even when they’re typing in a proportionally spaced font. And their children! Oh my goodness, you know how every baby is automatically cute? Well, let’s just say that complainers’ babies are … ... Too soon? Never mind.

Yeah, complainers suck. But you can learn to deal with them.

Complainers Want to Sabotage

You have to understand why complainers complain. One kind of complainer is the hidden sociopathic monster. They were passed over for a promotion that they really thought they deserved. The fact that they didn’t deserve it, and the person who got the promotion did deserve it, is irrelevant. They feel unappreciated, they’re darned mad, and they want to leave. But they can’t because then they’d lose their health insurance. So they stay, with the malevolent intent of destroying the company with a thousand tiny cuts.

They complain because they want to undermine your morale and enlist your aid in dismantling the Deity-forsaken place once and for all. Just watch—pretty soon they’ll be picking up 55-gallon drums of fertilizer while they ask you to drop by the hardware store and grab a couple of detonators. When they ask, say “no.” Trust me on this.

Plus, an extra little bonus is that if their complaining destroys your morale so you do a bad job, they’ll get promoted in your place. 

When a complainer is motivated by malicious psychopathy, be wary. Tell them, nicely, that you don’t have time to talk right now. Avoid them, and make sure to keep a paper trail, so someday, your estate will be able to trace your mysterious disappearance back to them. 

Complainers Want Validation

Of course, not all complainers are evil demons from Heck bent on destroying the world around them. Many just want validation. The things they complain about are genuinely problems for them. They complain because they want agreement—to know they’re not being unreasonable. “The way the new programmer leaves the lid to the M&Ms jar half off drives me crazy. Right? Don’t you think so, too? They should be fired for such irresponsible behavior!!”

Your response when someone needs validation is a bit tricky. If you buy into their narrative too much, they’ll keep coming back for more validation of their next set of gripes, like “I think birds fly way too much. I mean, they clutter up the sky and probably pose a danger to helicopters. Don’t you think so? They should be exterminated for such irresponsible behavior!!”

Name Their Behavior and Let It Drive You

Look them straight in the eye and say, sincerely, “That sounds really upsetting. Do you want advice, or do you just need to vent?”

What you’re doing here is validating their feelings, without necessarily agreeing to their specifics. You’re also sneakily naming what’s going on—that they’re venting. And you’re even giving them the option of telling you how to deal with them.

If they just need to vent, look them straight in the eye and say, sympathetically, “That sounds really horrible.” Then listen quietly until they run out of steam. Nod occasionally, but just empathize. Don’t agree, don’t discuss, don’t multitask. Just nod and listen with your full attention.

After a few minutes, they’ll start to realize they’re just sitting there venting, and they’ll begin to run out of steam. If they then switch to asking for advice (or if they just wanted advice in the first place), just say, “I find that my best course of action comes from the Serenity Prayer: change the things I can, and accept the things I can’t.”


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.