Getting Juvenile Employees To Grow Up

“The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” – Charles Du Bos (Approximations, 1922-37)

What do you do with a chronic complainer, an employee who is always dumping his problems on you? Please note: I’m not talking about the industrious individual who has a rare and significant problem that forces him to come to you. I’m talking about whiners.

The ceaseless complainer takes your time. He steals your energy. And he diverts your attention. If you try to help, you discover that the problems seem to escalate. The more attention you pay to him, the more things he finds to complain about.

Your impulse to help him is human, but troublesome. It is based on some bad but commonly held ideas. For example:

The employee’s job is to show up in the morning, willing to work. Your job is to figure out what he should do, show him how to do it, and motivate him to do it with enthusiasm.

There is something in the relationship of boss/employee that requires caretaking. You are in a superior position. You make more money. You have more power. You have control over some aspects of your employee’s life. This creates for you a responsibility. If he needs help, you should be able to provide it. This notion is the workplace equivalent of noblesse oblige.

If you support such notions, you will get such behavior. The chronic complainer will show up in the morning. But with a bagful of problems. Unless and until you can solve them, he won’t feel like he has to work very hard. He’ll do what he’s asked, but no more.

Besides being misguided by the improper thinking described above, you may be tempted to take care of such a person because you are challenged by the problems he brings you. What is more fun than fixing something someone else can’t?

It’s fun — but don’t do it. If you make it a habit, you make two mistakes simultaneously: You waste your valuable time by taking it away from a more profitable endeavor, and you reinforce the nonproductive behavior of your employee.

According to the experts, workplace babies are caused by workplace mommies. If you resist the temptation to nurture and suckle each employee-child who comes to you, you’ll do yourself and your business a big favor.

“People become babies because we let them. They’ll kick up a fuss so we’ll do whatever they want,” says Hank Trisler, author of “No Bull Selling” and “No Bull Sales Management.” And Larry Schulz, author of “Selling When You Hate to Sell,” says, “A child is quick to blame someone else. It’s up to the manager to point the employee in the right direction.”

You don’t have to be rude to the complainer. But you do have to let him know that his complaints will not work with you. Listen briefly, but don’t indulge him. The main thing is to give the chronic complainer the message that business is not about him and his problems. Let him know that the solutions must come from him.

In the sales arena, most objections are merely camouflage for a deeper problem: The complainer is afraid of something in the sales process. He masks his fear by mentioning objections that he hears — and the objections never end. The real problem is that he hasn’t the guts to close the sale, but he’s afraid to say so.

“Lies are convenient because they keep (salespeople) out of action,” Steve Chandler, author of “17 Lies That Are Holding You Back,” told Selling Power magazine. “But a good sales manager can point out these falsehoods and allow someone’s self-esteem to keep climbing.”

I’ve run into my share of chronic complainers over the years, and I have tried all kinds of ways to respond to them. Basically, nothing works except a firm and direct reorientation. You have to let them know that your job is not to sympathize with their troubles but to demand and receive performance from them. Ask them if they can understand that. If they cannot, fire them. If they can, tell them very directly that the next time they have a problem they need to do the following things before coming to you:

Ascertain the real problem. You don’t want to waste time and energy fixing situations that aren’t really broken.

Define the problem as precisely as possible. The finer the definition, the easier it will be to discover a solution.

Come up with at least three possible solutions.

Decide which is the best solution and explain that decision.

Make this a formal procedure and enforce it. You may get a little grumbling at first, but before long your complainer will be trained to solve his own problems and you’ll hear from him less and less as time goes by.

If you are lucky, he will retrain himself to be good at overcoming objections. This will make him a much stronger salesman or problemsolver.