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North Central Business Journal News

(March 2001 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.
Synergistic Organizational Solutions

 About 15% of the population are excessively negative in their approach to life and work.  These people find fault with almost everything, and they tend to complain frequently.  When these people are in a work group, they can infect others with their negative approach.

 The usual technique managers use when confronted with complaints is to address the person with the complaint.  The intent is to solve the problem.  This technique works well with the vast majority of people who complain, but it does relatively little to solve the problem of the habitually negative person.

 When the usual tactic of addressing the individualís concerns privately does not work (in other words, the negative person continues to complain), a different approach is needed.  Now the focus switches from eliminating the complaint to preventing the spread of infectious negativity.

 To isolate the negativity, the manager needs to ensure that the rest of the work force does not succumb to the power of the negative person.  This requires that the complaint issue is addressed publicly.  That way, the rest of the employees know that the issue has been addressed and they will then ignore the complaining person.  They may not articulate support for the company, but they will not embrace the negative personís viewpoint.  Instead, they will dismiss the complainer, recognizing the person as an habitual complainer.

 Almost all complaints have some basis in reality, even if that basis is trivial.  The negative person uses that minute issue as the basis for the large complaint.  In addressing the complaint publically, the manager needs to acknowledge the underlying problem, not as something silly and unworthy of complaint, but rather as a legitimate concern.  Then the manager indicates how that minor concern has been solved.  If that is not possible, the manager can simply apologize for the mistake and indicate what is being done to reduce the likelihood of the mistake occurring in the future.  Most people accept apologies and let go of past mistakes.  The negative person, of course, continues to harp on those past mistakes, using them as the basis for the complaint.  But the rest of the work force now perceives the complainer as being irrational.

 Once the rest of the work force recognizes the complainer as being irrationally excessive, the habitual complainer loses the power to persuade.  The complainer can continue complaining loudly about the minor problem, but the others wonít join in the complaining.

 This tactic will need to be used each time the habitual complainer voices a new complaint.  The manager will need to let the rest of the employees know that the minor problem has been addressed, without worrying about whether the complainer recognizes that the matter has been dealt with. 

 It will be tempting for managers to indicate through body language or tone of voice that the habitual complainer is the problem.  However, if managers fall into this temptation, they will give the complainer new fuel for complaints, and this fuel could be accepted by the rest of the work force.  When managers are publically addressing the trivial basis for a complaint, they need to demonstrate through body language and tone of voice respect for the complainer.  Then when the complainer starts in with negativity directed toward the manager, the rest of the work force will know from their own experience that there is no basis for that complaint.

 After several times of using this tactic (respectful to the complainer, ensuring that the rest of the work force knows that the complaint has been addressed), the complainer will be unable to gather support.  The negativity will be isolated.

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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