Dealing with Debbie Downer: A Manager’s Guide

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I used to work with a person who annoyed me. She annoyed me because of how much she complained. When I would pull into my parking space and see her car parked nearby, I would sigh. Her attitude was so negative that it even affected my mood. I’m sure you’ve worked with someone who has had this effect on you. As a manager, you may find it challenging to deal with these types of employees. We have some practical tips to help managers address a chronic complainer. Let’s start with the following illustration:

Debbie Downer (632x640)Mike is a manager at an insurance company. Sally reports to Mike. Sally has been working for the insurance company for many years, and she performs her job duties with excellence. She is always on time and never misses a day; she fills out her forms quickly and accurately, and she is pleasant and professional with customers on the phone. But Mike has a major problem with Sally. Sally complains about her co-workers incessantly. She shows up in Mike’s office each week with a seemingly endless list of grievances.

On this particular day, Sally has shown up to talk to Mike about the previous shift’s lackadaisical attitude toward correcting inaccurate customer claim forms. Sally says that she knows that people are deliberately skipping over forms that have more time-consuming or difficult problems, and then those forms get passed along to her. She says the problem perpetuates because there is no system in place to track who has looked at and subsequently passed up the form.

Here’s what we recommend Mike do:

  • Listen carefully to what Sally is saying. She is obviously frustrated; look beyond her emotion and consider her actual complaint. Does it warrant attention? Do you agree that it is a problem? Do not disregard what she is saying because she annoys you. Often complainers are complaining about legitimate issues.
  • Dissect the problem with Sally. Ask questions. Really get to know how well Sally knows the problem and its root cause. Do not monopolize the conversation at this point. You probably already know more about the problem than Sally does, but let her voice her concern to the fullest. Some questions in our illustration could be:
    • How does she know that people are skipping over the forms?
    • How often is this issue reoccurring? Daily? Weekly? Monthly?
    • Why exactly does she think people are skipping them?
    • How is her job directly being affected by the issue?

By extending the conversation you can show Sally that you really do care about the concern she is raising, and you can help her think through the problem from different angles.  Chronic complainers often feel as though no one listens to them; active listening dispels that.

  • Ask for a solution. Sally needs to be a part of fixing this problem. Allow her to utilize her firsthand knowledge of the problem. This is again a time for questions -let Sally do the talking. If she can think through a feasible solution, let her!
    • Take her first suggestion and work through the details with her. Many times a chronic complainer has a solution already in mind. Inevitably there will be some flaws with the idea (otherwise it would already have been implemented), but it’s best if Sally can see them for herself.
    • If her first idea isn’t viable, ask her to think of another. Then talk through the steps of that solution. You might be pleasantly surprised with her creativity, and best case scenario is you end up with an actual, suitable plan.
  • Follow through with any solution you’ve agreed upon.  If Sally has come up with a reasonable, feasible resolution, implement it! A genuine solution helps everyone.
  • Even if no solution was developed, you need to follow up. By following up, you prove to the employee that your conversation wasn’t just a tactic to placate them for the moment, but that you do actually care about them and their concerns at work. Also the employee may have come up with a new idea to present with the additional time that has passed.

No one likes working alongside a negative person. Many times managers can make a positive difference if they are willing to put in some time and effort. Chronic complainers want attention; don’t try to ignore them. Instead make the effort to listen to them; not only will they require less and less attention over time, but your whole organization will benefit from the solutions you implement.

What else have you tried that works? Leave a reply and let us know.

One Response to Dealing with Debbie Downer: A Manager’s Guide
  1. Thanks for posting this. I would not have guessed the recommended response to a complainer would be to listen more actively! But three things ring true to me in your advice: (1) chronic complainers are asking for attention; (2) often they will have some sort of solution in mind; (3) if they are only seeing how an issue affects them personally, it’s legitimate, empowering and re-orienting to invite them to be part of a solution for others as well.


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