It's part of your daily routine and maybe you´ve gotten very good at it. You go to great lengths to avoid that one person with the uncanny ability to find something wrong with anything and everything. They come in all shapes and sizes, but almost every workplace has a chronic complainer.
I worked with a guy named Lou who could tell us in painstaking detail what was wrong with every department, every individual, and every decision. He planned his day, his coffee breaks and lunches by drifting from one ear to another, honing his ability to pick apart what’s wrong—with the company, with coworkers, with politics, and with life. Meetings were silent and awkward, because no one wanted to pitch new ideas, only to have them shot down with the high powered precision rifle of Lou´s cynicism.
The office came to a standstill. The air of optimism was gone and so were the great, new innovative ideas that come with it. People were frustrated because they didn’t think they could contribute anymore. And they certainly didn't want the ideas they felt passionate about nitpicked and pulled apart by the threads. It killed their enthusiasm, so they kept ideas to themselves. Maybe your workplace feels toxic and hopeless, but it doesn't have to be that way.
Understanding Lou´s cynicism
Being critical is not always a bad thing. Nothing in this world is perfect and pointing out flaws can lead to improvement. Criticism allows us to stand back and look at things from a new perspective. Everyone makes mistakes, and that's how we learn and improve. But someone has to point out mistakes and shortcomings. And that was Lou’s talent. It´s not a pretty talent, but it´s a talent you can detoxify and put to good use.
Criticism turns into cynicism when you see mistakes you think you can't correct. Lou wasn't born a cynic, he just felt stuck and powerless. But here´s how we flipped the script. Instead of looking at his rants as complaints, we look at them as requests.
Turning things around
Any complaint inherently has an unspoken request, so I assumed that Lou had a positive intent and wanted a resolution. He felt powerless, so I asked him some empowering questions. To turn his complaints into possibilities and shift his focus to something constructive and positive, I simply asked him these questions:
- What do you want?
- How can you fix that?
- What are you going to do about it?
- Where can you start?
- Who can help you with that?
- How can I help?
When you ask people to take responsibility for their complaints, soon they stop focusing on problems, and put their attention on solutions. And that completely changes their behavior. If you know people who are really good at finding flaws, ask them empowering questions. Then, their sense of accomplishment can come from fixing flaws, instead of pointing them out. And that in turn, drastically changes the atmosphere in the workplace from a sense of hopelessness and stagnation, to optimism and change.
About the author:
Martha Lasley is a founder of Coaching for Transformation, an accredited coach training program and ChangeMakers, a year-long facilitation training program. She creates results-oriented programs that inspire, motivate, and transform. “I surround myself with people who take risks and look for new ways of doing things; we explore both the solid ground and the edges of transformation.”
Martha is a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication and is a professional member of the Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Science. She has written three books: Courageous Visions; Facilitating with Heart; and Coaching for Transformation.
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