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A workplace buzzing with positive energy is key to success. The atmosphere pulses with creativity, cooperation, and synchronicity. If you’ve got it, you thrive.

But what if you don’t have it? What if you inherit a leadership position over a team of chronic complainers? How do you shift the momentum from negative to positive? Too many managers start by asking themselves how to minimize workplace negativity. If you start there, you will likely fail.

Why Employees Complain
From the employees’ perspective, complaining equates to a positive contribution. They are “raising concerns and awareness of issues” as a direct result of either:

  • caring about the company or
  • caring about themselves.

Any attempt to squelch complaining will send the message that:

  • their insights on the company aren’t valued or
  • they aren’t valued.

You can not build a positive work culture around those two messages. Instead, build the work culture around the exact opposite of those two messages. You must value employees’ views on the company as well as their loyalty to it, and you must value them.

Empower Employees with Process to Address Concerns
Listen to each complaint and address it, while explaining your thought process. State a clear step by step process by which employees should address this type of concern in future.

The processes may be as simple as:

  1. If you have a problem with someone on our team, I expect you to go to them first and try to work it out. If the problem persists, then come to me prepared to tell me why the two of you couldn’t work it out on your own.
  2. If there is a problem with your work, I expect you to solve it if you can. If not, notify me immediately as well as providing an estimate of the impact on our timeline and budget. I will work with you to resolve and reschedule as necessary.
  3. If you have a problem with our department as a whole, list it as an “Issue” on your weekly status report and we will discuss it at the weekly team status meeting.
  4. If you have a problem outside our department, list it as a “Concern for Discussion” on your status report. We can discuss these after team business in the weekly meetings. Be prepared to explain why this is of concern to our team. I will have information for you on this issue if it is available.

Following these rules, all complaints will be addressed regularly except those concerning outside departments. For these, make it clear to your team that you will do what you can to inform those responsible that a problem may exist, but after that they must let it go. You might say something like this:

“I appreciate your concern for the company, but please remember that we need to let those responsible for this matter address it. We wouldn’t want another team to start questioning us and demanding we justify our decisions to them. We expect the leeway to do things our way as long as we are delivering quality work on time. We must respect other teams’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities too.”

Regular Scheduled Airing of Complaints
Hold a regular, scheduled team meeting, preferably weekly, where these concerns are shared and addressed. Reach team consensus on the issue’s resolution and status. Move the item from the “Issues” section to an “Issues Resolved” section on the status report, or in some way designate that the Issue is now formally resolved.

The team atmosphere will quickly turn around with this approach. By appreciating the input of concerned employees and quickly addressing issues, you will demonstrate respect for your employees, their ideas, and their loyalty to the organization. The buzz of positive energy won’t be far behind.