The Best Way to Handle a Whining Employee

April 28, 2017

A whining employee often needs a lesson in communication – but their point might also be valid.

As a leader, it’s frustrating to hear whining. But saying your people can only come to you with answers, not problems, keeps you from hearing valuable feedback.

Motivated and passionate employees notice problems, even if they don't have the solution.

The challenge is your team may not know how to frame negative situations without complaining. Leaders hear from the sales team, “Our marketing isn’t working”, or from the marketing team, “The sales team doesn’t know how to differentiate our solution.”

It feels like a lot of whining and not much problem solving.  As a leader, you have the opportunity to dig beneath surface-level complaints and ask questions to reframe negative feedback.

First, start by running negative feedback through these filters:

1. Is there truth here?

Complaints can sting, especially if you are involved in the subject of the complaint. But ask yourself: is there any truth in what this person is saying?

It can be challenging to uncover truth when it’s presented in a whiny tone. For example, if you hear “Ugh, this internet is so slow!” what the employee may mean is “I don’t have the tools I need to be efficient.”

2. Is it actionable?

When someone complains their cousin makes twice as much money working for a startup or customers don’t like your new product line, you may not be able to do anything about it. However, don’t be too quick to dismiss feedback that doesn’t fall neatly into your wheelhouse.

If you can find the right person to talk to, or even make a dent in the problem, it’s worth looking in to.

3. Is it coming from someone who truly wants the best for your organization?

This is a more nuanced metric, but you know it when you see it. You can tell the difference between a Dave Downer who lives for negativity and someone who simply lacks the skills to frame feedback.

Well-intended people, especially less experienced team members, may not know how to communicate negative feedback without sounding winey. Grant them a learning curve.

How to reframe whining into actionable feedback

If you’ve determined the feedback has some level of truth, is actionable, and coming from someone who truly wants the best for your organization, reframe the feedback by asking a few questions.

Try these:

  • How does this impact your job?
  • What do you think we should do?
  • Do you have any ideas on how to fix this?
  • Have you looked into the root cause of this?
  • What options do we have in terms of rectifying this?
  • Is this your opinion, or do you have other evidence?
  • Would you mind speaking with (X) about your concerns?

These questions increase responsibility, accountability and creativity in your team. They also help train your team to think these questions through before they came to you next time.

The more you use these techniques, the less feedback you’ll get that isn’t truthful, actionable and well intended.

Even if the feedback you’re getting isn’t well presented, that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. As a leader, it’s your job to dig deeper and reframe whining into meaningful feedback.

Bottom line, next time you hear an employee whine, there’s really two things you should do. First off, coach them so they learn how to raise complaints more effectively. Secondly, seriously consider their complaint, and see if you can fix it.

Lisa Earle McLeod and Elizabeth McLeod work with organizations to improve competitive differentiation and emotional engagement. Check out their LinkedIn Learning courses here.