my employee argues and debates every little assignment and decision

A reader writes:

I have a direct report who argues every change or new task that is assigned. Some of these are individual requests, but the majority are changes the entire team is being asked to comply with. She is always the first to vocalize that she will do it because she was asked, but she follows it up with an argument about how she feels some other team should be responsible for the task or complains that no other team is having to do it and says that she doesn’t understand why we do.

She will do this in meetings in front of other team members, and I have had other team members approach me about how it is uncomfortable for them to have to listen to her argue every little thing. What advice do you have on how I can curb the meeting interruptions from these arguments, and on how I should approach her one-on-one about this issue?

Yeah, this can be exhausting — for you and for the other people who have to keep listening to it.

You don’t want to discourage her from giving input when it’s valuable, but it’s also not practical to debate every small decision.

The way to address it is to name the issue, explain to her why it’s a problem, tell her what you want her to do differently, and then hold her to that.

For example: “I don’t know if you realize, but you push back on assignments and decisions really frequently — nearly every time there’s a change or a new assignment. Pushing back this frequently takes up quite a bit of time and is becoming disruptive to the team. Going forward, if you have questions about how to do an assignment or how something will impact the rest of your work, please let me know — but I need you to stop pushing for another team to be responsible for our work, or debating why we have do something that another team doesn’t. I need you to stay focused on the work at hand.”

Then, if she tries to do this in a meeting again, shut it down immediately. There are a few ways to do that, depending on the context: If it’s truly a concern about how something will impact her own work, you can say, “Let’s talk about that in our next one-on-one so that we don’t get sidetracked here. Make a note to raise that with me at our next check-in.” But if it’s really just complaining, you can say something like, “I hear you that you don’t like the decision, but this is the decision, so let’s talk about how to implement it.” (An important note on that: it’s reasonable to say to a constant complainer, but you wouldn’t want to make that your go-to line more generally, or you’ll be too dismissive of people and will risk squelching useful input.)

And if it keeps happening after you’ve talked to her about it (meaning more than one slip-up after your talk with her), then you sit down with her again and have the “we talked about X / it’s still happening / what’s going on?” conversation that you’d have if your feedback on anything else was ignored. And if it continues after that, then you have a pretty serious performance problem on your hands — since at that point she’d be ignoring direct, repeated feedback — and you’d handle it the way you would any other.

{ 215 comments… read them below }

  1. always in email jail*

    Very timely/glad to see this addressed. I have a very similar issue and have considered writing in, so I’m glad to see this here! As always, I’m very appreciative of the specific lines/wording Alison has provided, particularly the ” “I hear you that you don’t like the decision, but this is the decision, so let’s talk about how to implement it.” (My employee is usually complaining/arguing about things that are literally national government-level decisions that we have no say in.) I’ve really struggled with a line for this, because what’s going on in my head is “OMG it’s a job sometimes we have to do things we don’t like that’s why it’s called work!” which is obviously not the appropriate response :-P

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I used to get some form of this at my previous company. I’m in banking, which is heavily regulated. There are many PITA things that we have to do in order to comply with the regulations. A lot of them make sense, some of them don’t. Either way, we have no control of whether we decide to do them or not. We have to do them. But inevitable certain people–the same people–would complain endlessly about having to do X or Y. I would finally get to the point where I would just say, “This is life when you work in banking. We have to do it. If you don’t want to do it for the rest of your career, then I’d suggest another career path.” These weren’t people who reported to me, just random chronic complainers in other departments that I had to deal with to make sure certain things were done. It was exhausting.

      1. Anonymoose*

        Ya, when I hear that someone is ‘constantly’ complaining about hindrances to their work – and nobody else is really complaining – this leads me to wonder if 1) this person is even satisfied at their job overall, or 2) if this just isn’t the right fit and they need to be couched out.

        Because, yes, pushing back constantly – not knowing when to pick your battles – shows me that you’re either not satisfied or not meant for the role I hired you for. No shame in it!

        1. Anonymoose*

          *coached out, not couched. Though I wouldn’t mind couching out of my work every afternoon from about 2-4pm and waking up refreshed!

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            I think some people just have it in their dna and aren’t really aware of it. Probably think they’re being constructive.

      2. Glenn*

        The complainers do bother me, but I want to chime in with a point on their side: a lot of people will lie about the origin of a directive if they think it will obtain compliance. So if someone tells me I have to comply because the rule comes from on high, how I react depends a lot on what I think of them. My default assumption, especially if the rule does seem stupid — and depending on who’s delivering the message — will often be that either (1) they have misunderstood the actual rule, or (2) they are lying about its origin because they believe that’s the best way to obtain compliance. Sad that in many places the well has been poisoned in this way, but keep it in mind when you get pushback.

        1. always in email jail*

          This may be the case. The previous person to hold my position didn’t hold everyone to these standards (and ended up being audited and getting a lot of red flags….) so they may be suspicious about why it’s suddenly the rule

    2. bridget*

      I think I have literally told a complaining coworker something like “well, take it up with Congress then.” Sometimes our work gets decided by people so many layers above us that it is just totally unproductive to complain about it.

      1. Charlie*

        Hah! I’ve used the same line – I work in environmental compliance, so it’s just as applicable there.

      2. always in email jail*

        Right? A lot of his complaints are related to the documentation our funding entity (a federal grant) requires us to keep. I’m sorry you think it’s “dumb” to have to scan sign-in sheets electronically AND maintain hard companies, but that’s the rule, so do it. It takes just as much time to complain as it does to scan.

        1. Observer*

          Well, it IS dumb. Very dumb.

          But, that doesn’t mean you get to not do it. Nor does it mean you get to waste everyone’s time and energy arguing about it.

          That’s really a key here – at a certain point, it doesn’t matter who is right, you just have to follow the rules without making everyone else’s life miserable.

          1. sstabeler*

            I personally like the full version of an old proverb- it’s often given as “give me the strength to change what I can and accept what I cannot” but the full version ads “and the wit to know the difference”- pushback is fine if it can actually make a difference ( though DO pick your moment) but if it can’t be changed, you’re just irritating everyone.

      3. Former Retail Manager*

        HA! My current position involves dealing with the tax code and this has literally been my response! I did not pass the law. I’m sorry you don’t like it, heck, maybe I don’t either, but it is what it is….deal with it!

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’ve seen this happen (along with always in email jail’s hard copy/scanned government grant reports), and I’ve found that sometimes it helps to name that the requirement comes from an external body/person at the beginning. So the reply to “that’s dumb and inefficient,” can be, “I agree, but Congress [the Feds, EPA, whatever] require us to do it, so it’s not up for debate.”

        1. JessaB*

          Someone somewhere decided probably to NOT scan certain documents, so in order to do an audit some day, they make you keep the hard copy somewhere. It has to be a reaction to a problem in the past.

          1. Joseph*

            Yes. These sorts of bureaucratic rules only exist because the old (looser) rules were abused by someone who found a loophole and ruined it for everyone.

          2. Artemesia*

            doing research we had to keep the original data (questionnaires and such for a considerable length of time). Electronic storage is ultimately not as secure as having the stuff.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              From what I see my state wants hard copies and digital copies. Reading between the lines, TPTB don’t believe the digital copies will last because of more than one reason. They don’t say that out loud too much anymore but they have believed this right along.

              1. Observer*

                After Sandy we had a LOT of PTB types who were all bent out of shape that we couldn’t show them this that and the other piece of paper. We HAD the information on computer, but they wanted ORIGINAL pieces of paper. At least one funder actually asked us what it would cost to rescue the pages. When they heard what the attempt wold cost (without guarantees – this stuff got soaked in a combination of sludge and seawater and it was days before we could get into the building to start assessing what MIGHT be salvageable), they backed off a bit. Now, most of our client documents get scanned. I’ve gotten some true believers on the team now.

    3. Sled dog mama*

      Had this problem at old job. One co-worker complained about one change to her supervisor, another person then came to me (this was all in one room in the span of about 3 minutes). After trying reasonable I lost it at her. I think I said “this is a dictatorship not a democracy and your supervisor has dictated the policy. You don’t have to like it but you do have to do it.”
      This was all over the level of illumination in a room and who controls it.

    4. Sam*

      Definitely timely. I had to chastise myself today for jumping in with a complaining coworker rather than having a neutral reaction. In my defense, I’m not a supervisor and it was a private conversation, but my position is such that I’m expected to back TBTP regardless of my opinion. It’s not a regular problem for me, but it’s a thing I have to work nonetheless.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I can’t blindly follow, either. FWIW, I have always appreciated sane people who are able to say, “Yeah, this is stupid. Yeah, we are going to do it anyway.” Sometimes it’s nice when people let their human side show and not just parrot the company line.

  2. Charlie*

    Man, this kind of complaining is so toxic. It fosters this us-vs-them mentality and resentment that just grows like a cancer. This has to get stamped out ASAP, because it’s going to poison your whole team if you let it.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      That’s an excellent point. I used to work with a chronic complainer, and while some of his complaints were perfectly valid, the fact that he would talk about it so frequently made working with and near him just exhausting.

      1. Charlie*

        Absolutely! Sometimes, even often, it’s 100% valid. But when it’s compulsive, it just makes me want to scream.

    2. Anonymous Commenter #762*

      Speaking for myself, you’re 100% correct. I changed departments a few months ago and one of my new coworkers does this constantly. Like Marillenbaum wrote below, it’s exhausting. I have talked with our boss about it. Boss has agreed that it’s a problem, but still mostly lets it go unchecked. I am beginning my job search soon.

        1. Anonymous Commenter #762*

          I have talked with them directly, as well as tried things like leading the conversation in other directions, but haven’t been able to make any headway. If you have ever seen the Saturday Night Live character Debbie Downer, that’s who I’m dealing with.

  3. AT*

    Years back, I joined up with some old co-workers at a new firm. “Paul” was the direct manager of “Mike”, and while Mike was very senior and respected, Paul was spending close to 2 hours daily debating decisions with Mike, so between the 2 of them, was burning 1/2 day daily of senior team member’s time.

    Eventually, Mike had to be cut – despite his knowledge and skill, he was too much of a disruption in a small company. (To his credit, when I talked to Mike afterwards, he acknowledged it was the right decision for everyone)

    1. Charlie*

      Ugh. I’m all for making sure everyone has space to air grievances and take ownership of their work and blah blah blah, but that’s insane. Paul needed to get some spine and say, “Mike: this is not a debate. I’m your boss. I am charged with this decision and I’ve made it. You have three choices: do what you’ve been directed to do, quit, or let me fire you.”

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’ve found this sometimes happens (arguing and nauseam) when, at a subconscious level, a person is unhappy or ready to move on, but they haven’t realized it yet. For example, if someone feels like they’ve been burned by management too often, they may start challenging every little thing because they no longer trust their managers/leadership to communicate honestly with them.

      Sometimes pointing out the behavior can help them realize it’s time to move on (as Mike did).

      1. Chalupa Batman*

        This is my experience as well. I’ve seem people with a long history of “team player” attitude slowly become argumentative and defensive as their trust in leadership eroded. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to pitch in, it was that they no longer felt confident that anyone would stand up for their interests unless they pushed. It’s the wrong way to handle it, and it may or may not be warranted (I’ve seen it go both ways-OldJob was a mess where this happened frequently, but I’ve also seen people do it who stopped trusting management for really petty reasons), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some of that going on here.

      2. designbot*

        That’s what I was wondering about too. When every little thing is suddenly A Thing, there’s usually something bigger going on. Figure out what the bigger thing is and you have the opportunity to make a much bigger impact. Maybe she’s ready to move on, maybe she’s feeling underutilized and like she should be a part of bigger decisions (if so explain how the way she’s going about it is not helping and how to make her case more effecitvely), maybe there’s a long standing argument between her and your boss that you’ve stepped in the middle of. You won’t know until you address the pattern.

      3. Lemon Zinger*

        Great point. When my teammate started a couple months ago, she complained about EVERYTHING we asked her to do for training. I’m not sure what she thought this role would be like, but apparently she had different things in mind. Now that she’s actually working (mostly) independently, she sees why those trainings were important!

        Of course it’s terrible form to moan about your job when you just started, but that’s another issue for another day…

      4. Not So NewReader*

        Yep. OP might gain some ground by asking the person if they are happy at the job at all.

        We can grow unhappy at our jobs and forget to leave.

        I will say though, the biggest complainers I have seen are the ones who believe they cannot find a job elsewhere. They have the mindset of a prisoner, not an employee.

  4. Mazzy*

    I wrote about something similar with entry level folks in the office. Everything is a debate and discussion even when I’m just delegating work or discussing something that shouldn’t be controversial. Ex entry level person does data pull and finds money lost in their area. 8 ask them to investigate and they think it’s a discussion.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I’ve always thought this was a habit picked up in college. The interns rewriting the dress code policy is a good example.

      Don’t get me wrong. Questioning and debating are good habits, but there’s a time and place for them. Having the wisdom to know when is the real skill.

      1. 2 Cents*

        And from interns, I don’t mind the “why?” questions so much, as long as the questioner is truly looking for information — and not for an opportunity to be like, “Stupid worker, I’m so much smarter than you, and I haven’t even graduated yet!” (We have an intern right now who does this all.the.time. Has not won many brownie points with me as a result.)

        1. Marillenbaum*

          Ooh, that sounds frustrating! When I started at my first post-college job, I tended to ask why a lot, but (hopefully!) it was coming from a perspective of “I want to understand how everything fits together so I can do my job better”, because I honestly didn’t have a ton of work experience coming into the position.

        2. Parenthetically*

          A writer I like a lot JUST posted an article about distinguishing between types of “why?” — in her context it was about kids, emphasizing that no, a kid who asks why is NOT always being rebellious — but yes, it’s definitely helpful in a work context as well. “Why do we do it this way?” asked with curiosity and interest is completely different from “Why do we do it this way?” asked with chin protruding and eyes narrowed.

          1. Artemesia*

            I control anxiety with information. So at the doctors I want to know why. The tradition in medicine is ‘doctor knows best’ and I have had nurses whom I had questioned come back with this ‘doctor wants you to do this.’ I have found it helps to say early on — ‘I am not questioning whether we should do this, I just want to understand why.’ And Doctor doesn’t always know best. I actually got my husband’s eye doctor to take a second look and change meds after a med he had given had caused macular degeneration in my husband. His vision was getting worse and he was just telling him to proceed with the medication. I stopped him and said ‘His vision is getting worse on this medication, why?’ And he looked and said ‘oops’ and ‘that is one of the side effects of this drug, we’ll try something else.’ But to get back to the point, yes newbies seek to understand and that is different from pushing back — but they need to make that clear.

            1. Adlib*

              Oh yes, doctors aren’t perfect, and this is an example of why people should take ownership of their health and treatment! Wow, I hope your husband’s vision improves. (I sympathize as one with her own vision/eye problems.)

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I’m this way, too! I’m a person who works best if I understand the bigger picture, even if it is not essential to complete the tasks I’m assigned. When I realized people were reading my questions as undermining or challenging authority, I started explaining up front why I ask why, and it tends to deescalate the situation and make people more willing to answer my questions. I also only do this one-on-one; no one who is stuck in a meeting wants to stay longer just so I can understand, and I try to be cognizant of that. The benefit was that, if done correctly, it came off as self-aware instead of self-centered/obnoxious.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                I grew up in a home where work was not discussed much. I had no clue. Once employed, I asked “why?” a lot. It did not go well for me initially. Finally I learned to lead the questions: “Do A before B, because if you don’t then you will have trouble with C? Am I understanding this correctly?”

                This changed things for me because people could see I was trying to connect the dots and make sense of the process at hand.

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Also, OMFG I am livid at your doctor, and I am so sorry your husband had to go through that experience.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Absolutely agreed. Asking to better understand the process/purpose = fantastic. Asking because you think work is beneath you = I will be so irritated with you and will not want to invest in your intern experience, let alone hire you.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        (I work in an historical archive. For the record, becoming a professional archivist generally requires a library science Master’s + archivist certification) We had an intern who did this with my boss. I wasn’t aware until shortly before she left just how recalcitrant she was about her duties vs. the duties of myself and other assistants (non-MLIS employees, although we have bachelor’s degrees and have worked in the discipline for years). We’re a small department so there is, by necessity, a lot of flexibility in job desciptions, because if we waited for the “official” person to have time to do certain things, we’d get backed up.

        She apparently have very definite ideas of what kind of work she vs. we should be doing, and pushed back when given assignments she considered beneath her level of education. My boss was not sorry to see her go.

      3. Kai*

        I can vouch for this. I think in school, it’s easy to believe that your education and the critical thinking skills you gain are going to be the most valuable things you can bring to the workplace, so you come in swinging at your first job, not realizing that you don’t know the half of it yet. I was pretty guilty of this when I started out!

  5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP, is there some underlying issue other than your report’s attitude toward responsibility? It’s totally possible she’s a chronic complainer, but I wonder if there’s something else bothering her that she’s not articulating well (and so instead defaults to generic complaining). For example, she could have frustrations with communication around project management and task assignment, have workload issues that are contributing to burnout, or feel unqualified/untrained to do the tasks being requested and thus can’t keep up with the rest of the team.

    You’re of course not obligated to do this, but wonder if it makes sense to bump up the “what’s going on?” conversation to a little earlier than Alison’s timeline. For example, if she’s having load management problems, it would be good to know that sooner than later. But if she’s complaining about changes that don’t bother anyone else on the team and are a required element of the job, and if this ends up being an attitude/personality issue, then it sounds like this position may not be a good fit for her.

    1. Purest Green*

      I’m also wondering if it’s a workload issue she isn’t addressing properly.

      she feels some other team should be responsible for the task” Because otherwise that’s job security, sister!

      1. TootsNYC*

        True! Though, I have someone on my team who will make this comment somewhat frequently, and a significant percentage of the time (not half, but close, maybe), it turns out that actually he’s right.

        And he makes me think about our team more, and what other teams should be doing.

        I find that I don’t mind hearing it from him. I will often disagree with him (job security, for one thing, esp. since our specialty is shrinking, so taking on responsibility for MORE things makes us more indispensable; also, my team is at the very end of the process and so is the one that bears the brunt of it if someone on the early team realizes too late that they forgot a crucial element).

        But it’s good to make me think of it.

        He doesn’t take it too far, though.

    2. Liz2*

      Agreed and well said. Communicating process changes in general should have a rationale front loaded into them. This lets everyone know right off the bat what’s going on, why it’s going on and why they are being included in it. This cuts out the “whiners” who say they don’t know later and it can foster people to say “Well hey, if that’s what you want, you could do it X way.” and get exactly the feedback you want.

      It depends on if this person is complaining just out of habit, if there’s a chronic communication gap that’s being ignored, or if they really are disrespectful.

      Also you can encourage the “don’t bring up a complaint unless you’ve already worked on a solution” process.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I agree. Having the goal and rationale laid out first makes the whining more visible.

        And if there’s some legit input, it will help others to frame their objections more productively. It just sets the whole framework.

    3. KarenD*

      Very much agree that a little probing might uncover something useful. I had this situation once and “Wakeen’s” resistance and balking came close to sabotaging our short-term/high-pressure assignment. It didn’t help that nobody explained to him with sufficient clarity that I was, in fact, his direct supervisor for the duration of the assignment, but even after we established that he kept pushing. I finally sat him down for a Long Talk.

      Turned out there were two things going on, some personal issues (which we really couldn’t do anything about) and the bigger deal, which was that Wakeen’s previous-and-future supervisor was not letting him go. Even after he was told to cut it out, the “just one little thing” emails kept coming and every time they did Wakeen would drop what he was supposed to doing for me and answer the call. It didn’t help that 1) there were a few circumstances under which Wakeen HAD to be available to his former team (but his boss was way, way exceeding that, and telling Wakeen to keep it on the down-low, which meant Wakeen was giving me no good explanation for why he wasn’t getting my stuff done) and 2) Wakeen was going back to that team once this assignment was over.

      There wasn’t a happy ending for Wakeen, unfortunately. We could not shut the other boss down, and Wakeen became the first person I ever had to send home less than halfway through the assignment. He resented that bitterly and basically never spoke to me again. It didn’t help (from his point of view) that they sent me “Bobby,” one of our company’s superstars, as a replacement. Even without the first weeks of learning the ropes, Bobby hit the ground running so hard that he was up to speed within a week, and ended up parlaying his stellar performance in this assignment into long-term career bounces (which was how it often worked; this assignment was a plum and everyone knew it).

      So I won, Bobby won and Wakeen lost, but if I hadn’t dug into it, figured out what was going on and eventually made the tough call to send him home, I would have had a genuine disaster on my hands.

      1. Ama*

        “We could not shut the other boss down, and Wakeen became the first person I ever had to send home less than halfway through the assignment. He resented that bitterly and basically never spoke to me again.“

        I would have also been bitter if I had to pay the price when no one shut it down the demanding boss.

          1. KarenD*

            More clarification below …long story short, that sentence really should have read “We could not shut the other boss down and Wakeen kept colluding with him.” Even after things were clarified for him, he kept up with the pushback and the snide comments.

            If Wakeen had been straightforward from the start about what was going on, he would have had support from our mutual grandbosses. The parameters of this assignment were well-established and several other employees (and their team leaders) had already been through it.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed. This is an awful circumstance for Wakeen, and would have been preventable if there were someone above the co-boss level who could have helped manage Old Boss’s constant requests.

      2. Miss Betty*

        Poor Wakeen! He was really caught between a rock and a hard place, wasn’t he? Since he knew he had to go back to his previous manager after the current assignment was done, he was probably very uncomfortable with even the idea of causing trouble for that person. Whatever happened tot he supervisor who was the actual cause of the problem, by circumventing direct orders and order his past and future employee not to say anything to anyone? Sounds like he’s the one who should’ve been sent home and Wakeen given an opportunity to actually do the assignment without interference from someone who was in a position to make his future work life miserable.

        1. KarenD*

          I would cheerfully have sanctioned that person (let’s call him “Remy”) if at all possible, because yes, he was undermining Wakeen and myself in a very sneaky way. And Remy knew that for the duration of this asssignment, Wakeen was supposed to be mostly off-limits; it was the same deal with all the other people who were assigned to me. This was something we had done so many times that most of the protocols and procedures were pretty well established.

          I do hold Wakeen responsible to a great degree, however, because he was consistently letting me down and not giving me good insight as to why (not Remy’s interference would have been a good excuse, but early on, there would have been more leisure to attempt mitigation.) This was a high-profile, high-pressure, mission-critical assignment. And basically, the way it worked was this: For the first few weeks, I expected Wakeen to spend about 80 percent of his time doing actual work, and 20 percent just figuring out the moving parts that were about to kick into high gear, with as much help as he needed from me on that.

          But Wakeen wasn’t taking time to learn what he was going to HAVE to know, and he was still expecting me to pick up the increasing amount of slack he was leaving in the actual work. And he was pretty boorish about it too; he’d say things like “Well, if it’s so important you do it” when I’d ask him why something wasn’t completed, and when I’d tell him “You need to get friendly with people in this particular office because they can really help you out,” he’d roll his eyes and say “well it’s their job to be helpful.” (Actually, no, it wasn’t.)

          With everyone else who was sent up to work with me, I never had to act “bossish;” we were mostly interacting like colleagues. It bothered me when I had to establish the “no, really, I am your boss and this is your assignment” thing after a few weeks with Wakeen, and it just kept getting worse.

          After our talk, I got in touch with the appropriate leadership at the mothership and asked them to rein Remy in. Unfortunately, both he and Wakeen denied what was going on, even as they kept doing it … and it wasn’t too hard for anyone to figure out. After about a week with no improvement (and the clock ticking) it was fish-or-cut-bait time — so Wakeen got cut.

          I wasn’t remorseful about that. Had Wakeen chosen to stand his ground as he had been assigned to do, our mutual grandbosses would have had his back and Remy would have been forced to back down.

          1. TootsNYC*

            I think this was all on Wakeen. It’s not even about standing his ground with his old boss.

            If he was saying “if it’s so important, you do it,” he was a jerk. And if he didn’t say to you, “I’m having trouble moving at this pace because ZYX,” he was failing as a subordinate and project partner.

            It really had nothing to do w/ Remy. It was all Wakeen.

            1. KarenD*

              It was both. Remy was working the “hey buddy, you’re my right-hand man” angle and from the start, was saying things like “Don’t tell Karen about this, but I need you to …” He was a deft manipulator.

              I certainly had some responsibility in this too. If I had said “whoa” after the first few times Wakeen blew things off or pushed back, there might have been time to figure out what was going on and get him back on track. By the time I sat him down, patterns had been set.

          2. Miss Betty*

            That puts a very different spin on things! (Though I still wonder what happened to Remy? He sounds pretty awful himself.)

    4. Doe-eyed*

      I was wondering about this as well. I thought this could be from our new Manager From Hell (MFH). She perceives the entire time as being “complainers” but realistically she knows little about our workloads and keeps overloading us with trivial things that prevent us from doing our actual jobs.

    5. Bad Candidate*

      I tend to agree with this. I’ve been on teams where we were at the bottom of the hill that “stuff” rolled down and had managers that had a hard time saying no to other department/team heads. So we ended up doing something that added A LOT of work to our plate that would have taken 20 seconds for someone in another department to do. (and no, that’s not hyperbole) Maybe it’s not the case, but it might seem like it to her.

    6. DCompliance*

      I also agree. I was wondering this as well. It appears that the direct report has the same complaint- other teams should be doing the work and the OP’s team is the only one doing it. Is there any truth to this? Is she getting burnt out with these changes? Are these changes making things more efficient or are you adding more work every time? Are these changes making it harder to meet goals while other teams doing the same job don’t have to worry about these tasks?

    7. Cas*

      Agree with this possibility. However, one thing that made me wonder was that apparently the other teammates are unhappy with the complainer’s behaviour. When I was in this situation and disagreeing with particular work flowing to our team, etc, my colleagues thanked me (privately, not in front of the manager they didn’t feel comfortable with) for standing up for the team because they were feeling overburdened and that these decisions weren’t appropriate.

      The fact that other people in the team are complaining about it makes me think it could be all about the individual after all.

    8. cncx*

      this was exactly the case with a complainer i worked with. The complaining was not for complaining’s sake, the background context was he was upset he wasn’t promoted to the boss when his old boss got fired and our boss was much younger than him and came from outside. and complainer did not like that and questioned boss’ authority on literally everything. so every single darn team meeting was pushback after pushback, even when my boss asked this guy to do something completely not controversial and 100% part of his job, there was discussion, debate and pushback. it was exhausting and made me dread team meetings.

      furthermore, when the boss gave me and complainer stuff that was part of the same project, the complainer would not let me progress on my tasks because he was pushing back, and because of our age difference i had a hard time pushing back on the complainer too. i hated it. i would cry in the bathroom.

      our boss did exactly as alison said, every time complainer pushed back, he would say “ok i hear you but let’s keep this for our one on one.” eventually the dude was cut loose- the environment was too toxic and draining, and even though he had skills, it wasn’t worth the drama. some things at work are just not worth a debate you know?

  6. Imaginary Number*

    I think most people of doing this occasionally, to some degree (not every time, but occasionally “griping” about things that can’t be changed because sometimes griping makes you feel better.) There’s a good chance she has no idea that this is becoming a pattern, especially if she’s actually complying with the requests in the long run.

    1. Charlie*

      I don’t buy the “but griping makes me feel better” excuse. Not directed at you, of course! I just hate the justification of negativity.

      1. Imaginary Number*

        I’m not excusing it. But I think anyone would be hard-pressed to claim they’ve never griped to make themselves feel better.

        1. Charlie*

          Like I said, not directed at you personally. And yes, griping can help give you a little hit of emotional satisfaction, but if it’s your go-to every time you’re frustrated or resentful, I think it just lets the negativity dig a groove.

      2. fposte*

        There’s also some indication that it’s not true–venting seems to embed the displeasure more firmly in research studies.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          It keeps a person in a stressful state, not a problem solving state. Venting keeps the stress alive and kickin’. I have often thought that for some it is a habit or a way of coping with life. Get energy from any source even if it’s something negative like anger.

      3. ZVA*

        Same. I don’t buy it either! All the worst gripers I know do it constantly, and as far as I can tell it does nothing to make them happier. I agree with fposte—in my experience, complaining actually reinforces bad feelings instead of dispelling them.

      4. Marillenbaum*

        It’s a tough balance to strike, because yes, in the short term venting can feel really good–but ultimately, continuing negativity is really harmful, both to overall morale and because it can keep someone from realizing that they are actually in a bad fit and need to move on.

    2. Purest Green*

      I think your last sentence is especially important. Most people don’t do things like this in a deliberate effort to be obnoxious and unproductive.

    3. always in email jail*

      Some people seem to enjoy what I call “recreational complaining”, but it certainly has a tendency to drag everyone else down.

      1. Charlie*

        They don’t realize what a drag it is. They’re so negative in their basic outlook that they don’t realize it can ruin a whole day for me.

  7. Former Retail Manager*

    Ugh…people like this! Only here to commiserate. Dealt with a few in my past career….exhausting is an understatement. Alison didn’t exist back them. I wish she had, as I was not nearly as professional or diplomatic in my responses. It just wears on you after hearing it for months on end, day after day. Best of luck OP!

    1. MadGrad*

      I know what you mean by this, but I now have this really goofy mental image of a fully-grown and trained Alison just popping into existence to politely correct someone in an office somewhere, then vanishing to the next place of need.

      1. JessaB*

        Yes, like State Farm – like a good manager Alison is there. And poof you get Alison to fix it and go on to the next “customer.”

        1. Rat in the Sugar*

          She could have commercials!

          “Is this legal?”

          “I don’t know, why don’t we Ask A Manager?”


          “Yes, it’s legal but it’s stupid.”


          *end music*

          1. TootsNYC*


            Get someone to help you make a series of videos of this. New revenue stream?

            You can’t do “Alison Poppins,” but you can certainly do the “ask a manager / poof!” thing.

  8. Sabine the Very Mean*

    Do you have anyone on your team who’s really good at shutting people down with relative grace? I have a co-worker who is so good at saying, “Jane, I think its inappropriate to offer your opinion unsolicited. This constant nay-saying makes for a tense meeting and I highly doubt your concerns are being heard as you had hoped they would be. Is there anyway you could vocalize your frequent concerns in a more appropriate venue?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      isn’t that hard for a coworker to say? It’s definitely judgmental (accurate, yes), especially the “inappropriate” word choice, and that kind of negative judgment often shuts down people’s “ears.”

      But yes, saying, “I find it makes the meeting tense” and “I end up not being able to get to the information I needc” and “I don’t think you’re getting anywhere in that venue anyway, a private convo might get you more of what you want.”

  9. Heather T*

    I had an employee who did this. We finally turned it into something of a joke. The decisions weren’t ones that I had made, so I asked her — Are you complaining because you want to vent or are you complaining because you think I could do something about it? When we determined that it was the former, after that when I would give her news about a change I would end it with, “AAAND let the venting begin.” She’d say her piece (usually while I worked on something else), then I would ask “feel better?” and we’d both laugh about it.

    1. Imaginary Number*

      Some might say this only encourages bad behavior, but I like it. You’re both aware and upfront about the context (she’s venting to feel better, not because she’s actually mad or pushing back.) And because it’s been formally declared as “venting” every time, she can make it clear when it’s something she’s being serious about vs. just griping.

    2. Charlie*

      You’re remarkably patient. I personally don’t give “venting” a lot of credence. There’s a small endorphin hit of satisfaction while you blow up, but it just entrenches and justifies the resentment, which always continues to grow.

      1. fposte*

        Yup. However, I’d still be okay with letting somebody do it in some situations (and this is a good example of one), because it could more practical than trying to reform somebody. But I don’t put venting satisfaction into the weighting there.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I disagree. Venting can be necessary to prevent a person from contributing to a Gordon’s Knot of a feelings ball that manifests in other, usually worse, ways. And giving employees space to vent, when done carefully, can build camaraderie and provide a place where folks, after venting, can then turn to strategizing on how to efficiently get “thing I hate” done instead of “justifying resentment” and growing it.

        I’m not saying people should not be expected to manage their feelings—they should—but some frustrations are valid and worth airing… just not always in team meetings.

        1. Charlie*

          It’s probably fine in discrete doses, when there really is something loathsome on everyone’s plates. But the psychological research suggests that while “venting” is good for a short-term endo rush, it tends to dig the resentment and anger in, not flush it down the drain. Especially when it’s regular! Sometimes the benefit outweighs that negative, like when a team has really gotten slapped with something onerous, but when it becomes so regular and expected that the manager is going “aaaand vent on” that tells me it’s gone off the rails.

          1. Charlie*

            And there’s also the psychological hit everyone else takes from the venter. If everybody’s pissed and needs to vent, it can build camaraderie, but if it’s one person who always needs to vent about everything, that changes the dynamic. Dealing with chronic complainers is exhausting and makes me more negative.

            1. Observer*

              I do think that labeling for everyone to hear, and in this manner, makes it easier for everyone to ignore. It’s not a conversation, it’s a soliloquy that makes an opportunity for everyone to check their phones. Note the @Heather T actually says that she generally did something else while the person vented.

              Of course, if the venter went on a 15 minute tear while the whole team waited, that would be different because that wastes too much time. But a 15 – 30 second vent? Roll my eyes and check whatsapp.

            2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              I totally agree that it can be toxic, particularly if it’s every. single. time. a change occurs (especially if venting makes you stew in your emotions or fixate, which is what the psych literature suggests causes venting to be a net harm instead of a benefit). And also if it’s only one person—it can drive down morale and make people feel like every meeting is yet another eyeroll-worthy hijacking.

              I’m pushing back slightly because I do think there’s a such thing as low-level, healthy venting. I’ve worked at places where managers tried to shove TERRIBLE ideas down the line, and if anyone identified concerns, they were told they had an attitude problem, were gripers, and were overly negative… and then insisted on this creepy level of Stepford “positivity” that just made people more resentful. For some people that characterization was accurate, but it was really unfair when applied to most of the people raising concerns.

              It doesn’t sound like the case I’m describing is true for OP. Because there’s a really fine line between legitimate complaints/concerns and toxic venting, I want to ensure we’re not entirely ruling out the former in case there’s valuable information embedded in driving Constant Complainer’s behavior.

              1. LBK*

                I don’t think what you’re talking about is venting, though…it sounds like people were actually trying to raise serious concerns and management just didn’t care. I completely disagree that the line between the two is fine; if you’re talking to management, it’s almost definitely not venting.

              2. Tau*

                Yes, I’m currently in a super-complainy and also dysfunctional environment and have similar complicated feelings. On the one hand, I hate how everyone is so negative all the time (and one guy definitely crosses the line to unproductive venting that drags down morale and eats up everyone’s time). On the other, if we didn’t complain at all I think a lot of us would end up feeling that the various dysfunctions of this place are normal, particularly since we’ve got a bunch of people for whom this is their first job – some communal WTFing at events helps keep everyone in touch with the reality. But it’s a hard line to draw, and then I wonder if I’m just saying that because I’ve been infected by the constant negativity myself.

          2. always in email jail*

            I think regular venting is different that occasional venting. It sounds like in LW’s case that the level of venting from on specific person is inhibiting productivity. If you’re constantly over-explaining, justifying situations, or spending time tactfully shutting down complaints, that’s time lost that could have been spent doing more productive work. Especially if it’s in a meeting that is taking up the time of multiple team members. I like Alison’s recommendation to refer it to the one-on-one check in session, at least that reduces the total number of worker hours being wasted!

            1. Heather T*

              I should note that this was NOT in a meeting with other people. It was just the two of us, and often the griping was justified. For example, she was made to move her office five times in three years, which was disruptive and annoying. It also wasn’t a daily thing — it was for the big changes. Sometimes she would also gripe on smaller things and for that I would just look at her and say, “Really? You’re spending energy on that?”

        2. LBK*

          But the whole concept of venting is that you just need to air your feelings about something so you can theoretically move on – I’d say that by definition, it’s mutually exclusive from genuinely voicing concerns and working towards productive solutions.

      3. hbc*

        I’m guessing if the complainer manages to laugh after her vent, that’s probably short-circuiting a lot of the negativity. It’s become a performance or ritual rather than a real expression of anger.

          1. fposte*

            It probably doesn’t need to happen, but if it happens quickly and one-on-one and doesn’t require my full attention, it’s more trouble to shut down than to let go. Same thing goes for prefacing behavior and reassurance seeking. None of them are necessary, but whether I intervene or not is based on more factors than that.

          2. hbc*

            Of course it doesn’t. If the office mate were writing in that her vent sessions were unfairly being shut down, I’d be telling her to get over it. But since we’re all dealing with imperfect coworkers who are probably overlooking a lot of our own imperfections, if they’ve managed to find a non-harmful middle ground, it’s probably not worth using up goodwill.

          3. anonderella*

            it doesn’t need to happen FOR YOU.
            and, there were most certainly outliers in this experiment you keep talking about, which would suggest that SOME people did get something productive out of it. Were MOST people in the experiment “venting” about something serious or something non-serious? Did they all feel as if their backs were up against the wall and it was either “lose this job” or “vent for a few minutes”? I mean seriously, I get where you’re coming from, but you’re defending this position like it’s the way all people must feel.

            I am about to leave my job because the one person who helped me do it, and who was frustrated by the same reasons/person as I am and with whom I complained daily, was fired for complaining. Now, common sense says that I should leave my job if it’s that bad, that I must complain but yet am not in a position to change it. But it’s not that simple for me, and you should know that there are more factors in every person’s life than you can add up and prioritize.

            I just can’t explain enough how much it is bothering me that you are taking this position so vehemently, with seemingly no room for anyone else’s POV. It is totally dismissive of something that I know **I** wouldn’t have been able to get through the last year at my job without being able to do; you don’t get to judge my path and decisions, just take my word that complaining has a very meaningful place in my life – it may have helped me decide to go into HR, because I have a boss that doesn’t listen and makes my work-life miserable, and I want to give people a safe place to discuss perceived wrongdoings, and to know the systems necessary to help them.

            I think you’re just looking at complaints = negativity, when they are symptomatic of bigger problems that are frustrating for everyone involved; communication should be introduced, not taken away.

            1. LBK*

              But venting isn’t a form of communication. If you’re “venting” by talking to someone in a position of authority about your issues, that’s not really venting.

              I’m with Charlie that I think the benefits of venting are minimal and very rarely actually make a situation any better. I’m curious what positive impact you saw from always complaining about your workplace; it doesn’t sound like anything has really changed other than you going to HR, but I’m not clear how that was the result of venting, or how that’s done anything but provide you with another person to vent to now that your coworker got fired.

              1. anonderella*

                You’re right that I think that’s where I disagree; it may not be the ideal form of communication, but I still see it as communication. Valuable information wrapped up in trash, maybe, but there is value underneath.
                And I do think it’s odd to vent to an associate that is at a level of authority above or below you, but my ex-associate and I were at the same level, and only venting about one person. For the entirety of the rest of my job, I love where I work; it is only my manager that has an intolerable attitude.

                As for what positive impact it gave me, I suppose the same feelings/results as venting here on Friday threads do; I can’t honestly get too much into it because it’s a fairly emotional topic for me at the moment. I don’t have the job history to support changing jobs, and my future plans don’t have enough time to sink into another good resume anchor because we’re planning to leave the state near mid-next year.
                But to sum up, the more I vented to my ex-associate, the more she was able to see just how much at a disadvantage I was to succeed at this company, via my current manager’s obstructive attitude, and how little support I was given and thus to determine whether she could help me out for the sake of the company (ie: training). The more she vented to me, the more I was able to see just how much my manager treated her the same way, which was the only piece of evidence that I had that I was not in fact a total useless moron, as my manager’s treatment and utilization of me would suggest. This was my first job out of college; I was supposed to learn about professionalism here. All I feel I’ve gained is another place in my job history that left me feeling drained, bored, belittled, and dealing on a daily basis with a manager who is, at best, cruelly disillusioned with herself.

                1. LBK*

                  If you’re just looking for validation of your perspective on a situation, you can do that in a one-time conversation. It doesn’t require constantly reiterating just how terrible things are to each other; I don’t see the benefit of rehashing the situation ad nauseam after you’ve both acknowledged that things are bad. I’m not convinced by this that venting enabled you to do anything you couldn’t have done through a much more constructive, matter-of-fact discussion that wouldn’t have also led to you soaking in negativity for months about a situation you knew you couldn’t change.

                2. anonderella*

                  Oh, because it continued to get worse.
                  And, it’s not like we were able to go, “Oh, you’re mistreated about subject X? As am I! Are you mistreated about subject Y?” and sum it all up so succinctly. We are people being subjected to a human experience, so we were responding how we felt was best, which was to try to outlast her. There felt a safety in each other; now there is no buffer between me and my manager. Your response could be to say that it was never safe in the first place, and that’s certainly how it turned out, but there was no way to know it would go that way (that complainers would be fired with no warning, ruining 2 years of their dedication to the company because a bad manager felt insulted and insecure), because previously people were put on PIPs for insubordination.

                  I don’t see how you can be constructive about a situation that can’t change? We felt the only thing left to do was try to hang in there until something changed, and in the meantime confide in/console each other through mutual feelings gained from individual mistreatment.

                3. LBK*

                  Complaining about a bad situation you can’t change doesn’t make it better either, though. From personal experience, I guarantee that as much as you thought venting helped you stay sane, not doing it would’ve helped you more.

                  And to be frank, it feels like you’re waaaay too emotionally invested in work. I think maybe it’s tough when you’re newer to the working world and don’t quite have your footing yet, but I’d try to take things less personally as much as you can.

                4. anonderella*

                  No, I have to disagree. The loneliness was eating at me; venting made me feel less lonely and I could give definite examples of how my general quality of life improved once I felt like I had someone in my corner at work (stopped drinking as much, started looking more motivatedly at my future, and others).

                  I’m not emotionally invested in *this* job, but I have very good reasons to be emotionally invested in any job – my last two years of college sunk my GPA and my BA in psychology is practically useless; my work experience is lots of food/customer service, but since completing college last year I only have this job on my resume, and I’ve only had it for a year and a month. Oh, and I’m almost 30, so I have relatively limited ‘starting over’ options, making the nodes of, and their timing along, my career trajectory fairly meaningful. Failing at/being fired from this job is certainly no world-ender, but is a serious blow to my plan; the first few years of that plan are very real determinants of how the rest of it will go, or at least in what quality of life.
                  I really do get where you’re coming from, but to me it is survival.

                5. LBK*

                  If you’re not already seeking professional help, I would seriously recommend it. It sounds like you have a lot of things both at and outside of this job that would be worth talking through with someone. If you can’t actually change the conditions at your job, having a neutral party who can listen and help you work through your emotions so that you can at least cope better with the stress of that job would be a huge benefit.

                  Speaking from personal experience, when you have a lot of exterior issues that link up with and overlap with work issues, it can make dwelling in that kind of negativity seem really appealing and it can feel like a necessary survival technique in the short-term, but you can’t do it forever for any bad situation. You’ll make yourself miserable. The only way to survive long-term is to learn how to be positive and stay focused and motivated when you’re in a bad situation that you don’t have the option of exiting.

                6. anonderella*

                  I’m going to ask that we don’t go further on that topic; you can take me at my word that things are this bad or not, but I did not open the door to this discussion about my mental health.

                7. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I’m sure everyone here will respect that request, but I do want to note that when conversations go in this direction, LBK’s suggestion can be an important thing to note not only for the person it’s addressed to but also for others who are reading and who might recognize some of the same feelings in themselves. And with that, we can leave it here!

                8. anonderella*

                  Allison, fair enough, but that advice was specifically tailored to perceptions of my situation. Venting is directly connected to one’s emotions, and venting was the topic at hand. So while I feel that commenting about emotions is one thing, introducing “serious” suggestions to seek professional help based on comments that are on-topic is not generally what I see encouraged. I just feel that it’s a bit of an underhanded move in an argument (in the vein of
                  “you’re off your meds” if not delivered with some care), as LBK repeatedly ignored points I made it my responding arguments to them, and instead suggested multiple times that there was more to my situation than just someone not getting a fair break.

                  LBK said I take things too personally, and my justification of those reasons was met with a suggestion to seek professional help. I didn’t invite any speculation there. LBK could easily have said, “Ok, that’s where you’re coming from. In my experience, people who feel that way might benefit from talk therapy/other professional help.” There is a difference; I would think someone who means well would be sensitive to that.

              2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                So I disagree. Venting can certainly be a form of communication, and I’ve had experiences where a person’s venting helped unearth a legitimate work-related problem (i.e., not an attitude problem) and resulted in a process/policy change.

                The trouble with treating all complaints as bad, or all venting as bad (which is not what all psych literature says—it’s a result with much greater gradation than “all venting is bad”), is that it discourages honest feedback. There’s a very small percentage of people who routinely vent at healthy/functional work places—although their impact can feel outsized and drag folks down. But in places where there are legitimate concerns, like the ones Heather T identified, venting is often a symptom of a dysfunctional communication system between decision makers and workers… but decision makers don’t realize that, and workers don’t feel secure/safe/able to openly raise issues that merit review.

                1. anonderella*

                  “but decision makers don’t realize that, and workers don’t feel secure/safe/able to openly raise issues that merit review.”
                  This to the millionth. It would fix everything if my manager’s attitude were to change, but that is in no way a topic I am authorized to broach. In fact, there isn’t much I can say that doesn’t backhandedly suggest she’s not doing her job as well as she could be.

                2. LBK*

                  I think the problem is that you’re assuming the venter is the one fixing the problem by raising it, but in my experience it’s the people who raise their issues professionally and in a constructive manner that actually get the changes made. It’s the sounding board who has to listen to the vent that actually does the work to shape that rant into something productive.

                  That was my situation with my coworker who pretty much complained all day every day for the 3 years we worked together. During that time, our manager made huge strides in how he managed us, but it had absolutely nothing to do with my coworker whining all day. It was because I took the time to talk to him like a collaborator, not an adversary, and address concerns in a way that presented the solutions as for the benefit of the department as a whole, including him. My coworker never fixed a damn thing, he just made himself miserable by venting constantly.

                3. LBK*

                  Also, I think it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between someone going on a rant and someone lodging a legitimate complaint. I’ve never had trouble striking that balance of allowing people to bring up legitimate issues while shutting down unproductive whining, and I’ve seen plenty of other managers who can do the same. I think it’s a false argument to say that if you shut down any kind of negative commentary, you’re shutting out the possibility of real problems being raised.

                4. anonderella*

                  @ LBK,
                  Oh, I see where we may disagree – I am assuming the complainers have already tried the professional route and are still frustrated by nonaction, or as Princess Consuela Banana Hammock mentioned they don’t feel safe to do so. AAM regularly advises readers to only bring subjects that could be seen as adversarial to your boss if you think she’s capable of reacting professionally. At my company, we have seen my manager talk very rudely to us, and go out of her way to make herself look better to the executive team.

                5. LBK*

                  I actually don’t think Alison only advises people to raise issues to managers if they think the manager will react well. I think she says that raising concerns may not be effective if you don’t have a good manager, but she generally encourages it regardless. But what do you have to lose? According to you, your manager is horrible to you regardless, so she’ll either be horrible to you without provocation, or she’ll be horrible to you but at least you can feel like you’ve done what you can.

                  One thing Alison absolutely encourages is that if you’ve realized that your boss isn’t going to change, you either have to accept it as part of your job or you have to leave. You say you can’t leave, so I think you have to just accept the situation. I’ve definitely never seen Alison advocate for venting.

                6. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  One thing Alison absolutely encourages is that if you’ve realized that your boss isn’t going to change, you either have to accept it as part of your job or you have to leave. You say you can’t leave, so I think you have to just accept the situation. I’ve definitely never seen Alison advocate for venting.

                  Yes yes yes. It is so bad for you to stay in a situation where you’re miserable and can’t change things if you can’t find a way to more or less accept it.

                7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  I think we have different definitions of what constitutes “venting,” LBK :)

                8. anonderella*

                  What? No, the worst that could happen is she fires me for making waves. I absolutely can*not* be fired from this job.
                  And you’re right that I was conflating past AAM advice with my knowledge of how applying it would realistically work, and making the point that my boss would *not* react well, which is always how I read that bit of advice, to act within your best judgment of the manager.

                  “you either have to accept it as part of your job or you have to leave”
                  But I can’t leave, but every day is worse. So, no, there is no other solution than to wait as long as I can and hope to last until closer to when I want to leave. If in the meantime I break down and complain like a person who is under a lot of strain, I feel like that is the only natural progression. Again, I want to be clear that I was not arguing *to* my boss; the only word she wants to hear from me is “Ok.” And that’s where I keep it, with her; if that’s what you mean by “accept it”, then I can understand that. But I don’t see the harm in complaining to a coworker, if I know she feels the same way (and I wouldn’t put anyone in that position to hear those grievances unless I knew we felt the same) and we keep it discrete and as minimal as possible.

                9. LBK*

                  But I don’t see the harm in complaining to a coworker, if I know she feels the same way (and I wouldn’t put anyone in that position to hear those grievances unless I knew we felt the same) and we keep it discrete and as minimal as possible.

                  Because it’s bad for you emotionally. You’re forcing yourself to dwell on things you know are never going to change. Your working conditions already bring enough negativity into your life; why would you want to increase the amount of time you’re spending in a negative headspace? If you need to acknowledge it, then acknowledge it, but you don’t need to take more than 5 seconds to say to yourself “Wow, that sucks” and then keep doing what you can do.

                10. LBK*

                  @PCBH – I think we do, but it sounds like anonderella and I are using the same one, which is airing complaints to someone who can’t do anything about them and not trying to create solutions. To me, venting is saying something with the sole purpose of “getting it off your chest” or “blowing off steam,” when you don’t intend to do anything beyond verbally airing your grievances. People claim that this makes it easier to move on but I’ve found that to never be true.

                11. anonderella*

                  LBK, I can assure you that we do *not* have the same definition of venting. If I’m speaking, there is a point behind it; I told you how venting to my coworker led us to come up with work-arounds around my manager to get our jobs done. This is a situation where my manager truly does not realize how obstructive she was/is. Without my co-venter, I’m not sure I have the space at my job to speak to anyone to fix anything, workaround or legit.

                  You’ve never found it to be true, but I’ve told you about my experience where it was very true.

                12. anonderella*

                  and I believe you can vent with more than one intent, just as you can speak with more than one intent. Of course I want things to change; maybe I want the person I’m talking to to help, or maybe not. Maybe I just want them to listen.
                  this is absolutely a Nail in Forehead argument. It’s not about the nail!

            2. Purest Green*

              I don’t have a strong opinion for either side of this, but the fact that your coworker got fired for complaining is not a strong defense for the benefits of venting at work.

              1. anonderella*

                Well, that’s one side of things. The other side is that she asked for a raise after:
                a) being with the company for over 2 years and never getting one,
                b) being the only other associate who provided me backup to answering phones and watching the front door (not my policy, I would prefer to have no backup) quit (supposedly because of my manager), leaving her one of two associates to provide back up to the receptionist, then
                c) having her only other department personnel quit (because of my manager), leaving her to shoulder the entire department until
                d) that associate quit (my manager brought her on as a personal friend, and SHE even quit because of my manager),
                e) and the fact that the two others in her department that had been brought on (one from “d” and one still with the company) made more than her, even though she trained them AND carried the department solo when they quit.

            3. Charlie*

              “I just can’t explain enough how much it is bothering me that you are taking this position so vehemently, with seemingly no room for anyone else’s POV.”

              The feeling is mutual, but the vehemence with which you’re responding to me suggests that the nerve I hit has more to do with you than it does with my very reasonable and research-backed position. And you’re not doing much to convince me that habitual venting and complaining doesn’t just entrench negativity, because you sound perfectly miserable.

              Habitual negativity and complaining is toxic. If you’ve felt the need to indulge in that constantly just to stay sane at work for the last year, I think you need to make exit plans, not yell at me for pointing out how toxic it is.

              1. Brogrammer*

                I think you’re on to the real point when you point out that if someone needs to vent constantly in order to stay sane that they need to make exit plans. If they really can’t stay sane without venting, then the venting is a symptom of much bigger problems. It doesn’t help those problems (and there’s a great example of this from Complainy Complainerson below) but it’s a good indicator that it’s worth taking a step back to look at the bigger picture.

                1. anonderella*

                  That’s where I’m stuck, though, is wanting to leave (below I mention that I was misled about what direction this job would go when I was hired) and the actual practicality of leaving.
                  I want to, very, very badly, but am not able to change jobs. I have a feeling that if I do have to change jobs, it will be from working one white-collar job that stresses me out because I hate my manager, to the point that I can barely stand hearing her voice, and where I have relative comfort, to two stressful jobs that are not good for my health and are complete back-ward steps to utilizing my degree. This was just supposed to be a job where I learn the basics of office-work, which I have, but only in a toxic environment. Even if I do stay at this job, I worry that my manager will give me a negative review, even though she saves feedback and even revealing my mistakes for large performance reviews, so I don’t have much chance to gain any footing there and improve.

              2. anonderella*

                yeah you’re right about my tone, first of all, so I want to apologize about that. It was a gut reaction, and I was trying to type very quickly. I’m much better with written communication than verbal, so I’m used to having time to read over what I’ve written. Probably should have just posted later, but I didn’t think I came off that… yell-y. My bad, there, sincerely.

                But that’s the problem I have, is that I’m not complaining about anything but one person. I’m otherwise very, very happy where I work. Before I vented, I thought I was alone; knowing I’m not (via venting) gave me the strength I needed to realize my manager talks to everyone like this, and everyone hates her. She’s just really good at making people quit, or getting rid of people that have a problem with her, so nothing will change.
                This only happened in the last week (my associate being fired), so I’m not ready to move on from this job. In fact, I don’t think I can, because I need it on my resume and I don’t have time to get another job before I relocate. I have health reasons, too, for not being able to change jobs, though that topic gets somewhat political and I’m avoiding that.

                I feel that if my manager would have left, my ex-associate could have gone back to also doing her job and received a raise to complement her time and loyalty to the company through some trying times, which she did deserve. She and I had a great rapport, and it would have been a teamship instead of this her/me dichotomy my manager prefers and enforces.
                Also, my manager straight up misled me and several other associates as to how our jobs would go. I was lied to, and have tried my damndest to give a good product to this company despite the incredibly deliberate obfuscation I have faced; that’s where the anger comes from. I am fed up that I have been wasted like this; I am pissed off to watch my coworker get treated in such a manner. I really just want to do a good job, help out the company I work for, and learn enough to move up at an appropriate point. It’s not about wanting to be right, or wanting my manager to be wrong, which is where I feel like you were going with “the vehemence with which you’re responding to me suggests that the nerve I hit has more to do with you”. That’s also what I’m defending, is people who are genuinely up against the wall on how to succeed at their job, and for whom changing jobs is not an option. If venting makes me feel less miserable, and I know for a fact that the person who’s listening doesn’t mind, then why should it bother anyone if it’s what it takes to get me through my day?

                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  This may not make you feel better, anonderella, but the dynamic you’re describing was a key factor when I quit my toxic job. I was able to persuade the organization to assign a different interim manager/supervisor, but as soon as they put me under Toxic Manager, it completely destroyed my ability to do my job. I also noticed that I had begun complaining more often (not at work, but after hours with a coworker-friend), and it was an important red flag that made me realize that the job was changing who I was as a person. And I didn’t like the person I was changing into. I think Charlie’s point is that constant complaining can be that red flag that either there’s a toxic system-wide problem or an employee-specific problem that can’t be fixed the way the employee wants it to be fixed.

                  I know you didn’t ask for feedback, but if you can’t transfer away from your bad manager, it honestly sounds like it may be time to look for other opportunities. :(

                2. anonderella*

                  Almost brought tears to my eyes, reading that – but it did not, because I am a total badass. No seriously, about the changing etc, that is exactly what I broke down and said to my SO about two days ago. Not at all in a hysterical way, but it’s such a profound feeling when you realize that you’re changing as a person. Even thinking the old way feels like you’re trying to push a card sideways. For the good, and the bad, this job has brought me closer to knowing what I want out of a workplace.
                  About every single thing you said hit the nail on the head, and I am absolutely open to feedback if I’m putting myself out there : ) so thank you.

                  One last thing: I want to relocate around May/June of this year (working on narrowing down where, but relocation has been the dream for both of us for a long time, so SO and I are together on that front), but I’m worried because I don’t feel that’s long enough to start another reception-type job. If you were hiring for a receptionist – in say, June 2017-, would it bother you to see something similar to this experience on the resume:
                  Receptionist at ABC company, Nov 2015 – Jan 2017
                  Barista at DEF Coffee, Jan 2017 – May 2017
                  Clerk at GHI Store, Feb 2017 – May 2017
                  What would be reasons you would think were appropriate for leaving the receptionist job? I wouldn’t dream of trying to explain personality differences and being lied to and demeaned.
                  The reason for having two jobs is that I would need to make enough to ensure the move, and having jobs with less required training/experience would be a great way to stay working and keep my resume alive.

                3. Charlie*

                  “It’s not about wanting to be right, or wanting my manager to be wrong, which is where I feel like you were going with “the vehemence with which you’re responding to me suggests that the nerve I hit has more to do with you”.”

                  Oh no, not at all. My point was that if you’re getting angry when someone suggests that daily complaint sessions about your toxic manager are counterproductive, it’s probably not me that’s rubbed that nerve raw – it’s her.

                  “That’s also what I’m defending, is people who are genuinely up against the wall on how to succeed at their job, and for whom changing jobs is not an option. If venting makes me feel less miserable, and I know for a fact that the person who’s listening doesn’t mind, then why should it bother anyone if it’s what it takes to get me through my day?”

                  And my point is, is it making it easier to get through your week? Your year? Because maybe it gives you that pop to get through the day, but it’s clearly digging you deeper into the dynamic where it’s her vs. you, and at the very least you’re clearly still pretty miserable. And whether they’ll admit to it or not, I’d wager that it does affect the person you’re complaining to. I’ve been the vent-target in the past, and it’s always a mood-killer.

                4. anonderella*

                  @ Charlie,
                  Ah, I see I misunderstood that there.
                  Well, my ex-associate was already job-searching, so she was just trying to hang in until she found something better. And I had expressed to her that we plan to relocate in May/June of this year, so I was just hanging on until then.
                  And you’re correct that a few times it did affect me, that my ex-associate complained so much. But these remarks were always followed by, “I’m just so fed up,” or “I’m through with it.” and I knew that she was truly at the end of her rope. Accordingly, I reserved my in-work complaints for only the most egregious of crazy, which my associate didn’t know I was trying to straddle alone and when I told her she was able to provide me the support I needed (this wasn’t me not being competent enough to do my job, either, but things where I would be literally required to be in two places at once. I don’t seem to be able to put things on my own calendar, either, my manager prefers to have control over my calendar to a detrimental point, so I am not able to schedule my own coverage for regular events like taking inventory of office supplies, etc.).
                  I don’t complain to anyone now that she’s gone; it’s not just the willing ear, but the willing teammate that I lost.

              3. MrHiddles*

                I think the reason she is “yelling” at you is because you managed to complain (a lot) about complainers while being incredibly negative. Surely you can offer your opinion about the matter without talking down to people who feel differently?

                1. anonderella*

                  yeah I think I was gut-reacting to the large amount of dismissal for that perspective coming from Charlie. However, I really do apologize for the “yelling” – it’s something I’m working on, not to throw nukes at the fire. My background is “and I’ll hit you even harder,” which is not actually helpful in an argument with words. Trying to learn to navigate my feelings without enforcing them on others, or dismissing my own experience, and I am thankful to AAM for giving a place to learn that.

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  This goes back to the difference between employees and prisoners.

                  I relate to anonderella. There are only so many days you can go into work and watch people kick puppies and you know you are running out of coping tools.
                  If a person feels they cannot leave a job the stress levels increase expediently. Nothing like feeling trapped to help exasperate every single thing that happens.

                  Anonderella, I wish someone had to me what I am about to tell you. There are many illusions in life, some of the worst illusions are the LIES we tell ourselves. Like you, I told myself I had to stay at Toxic Job for [reasons] and I was sooo convinced that my reasoning was dead on target. My reasons were an illusion and what I told me was a lie.
                  Alison has a good list of reasons for not staying at a toxic job, I hope some one links it, or you can find it. I think the list will resonate with you very well.

                  You could sign up at a temp agency. You could just look for another job. Yes, you can just look for another job. This job is taking away parts of you, very slowly and very surely. Just like the other post about driving through a blizzard, no job is worth losing your health and well being over. No job. You are not learning how to work in a normal office. You said that you probably will not be able to get a reference. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Mostly you can get YOU back.

                  Do not trade your health and well being in just to have a pretty resume. It’s not worth it. BTDT. It’s not worth it. It buys you nothing.

  10. Bianca*

    Someone on my team is like this–I’d almost think you were my manager except in my case the offender is male. From the perspective of a coworker of this type of person, this kind of conduct is really annoying. In my case, this person, in addition to complaining about every little change or new responsibility during meetings, also likes to foment discontent from his coworkers when the boss isn’t listening, so this attitude in general is really toxic to have in a group.

  11. LA*

    It’s one thing to vent a little, or to express annoyance at a change. But some people don’t know when to stop, and it drags everyone else down.

    We had someone like this. Every single little change was a problem that she had to mount a campaign against. And if there weren’t changes, she would complain about how things needed to be changed (usually back to how a previous boss had done things 10 or 15 years ago). I think it was just part of her personality, honestly. She retired, and our entire department is a thousand times healthier & happier, to the point that people outside our department have commented on how much more positive we all seem to be.

    1. Lemon Zinger*

      It really can affect morale on a large scale, can’t it? When I started at my current job, my coworkers had been there a while and were all tired of the job and ready to move on. They expressed discontent with almost every aspect of the job and it really dragged me down! I enjoy my work and didn’t understand why they didn’t, or at least why they had to vocalize it so much.

      Once they all moved on, things got much more pleasant. My new teammates are (mostly) a joy to be with because they keep their complaints to themselves while we’re in the office.

    2. Kai*

      I had a colleague like this at my last job. Realized after a while that part of the reason I disliked my job so much was her influence–she complained about every little thing and would blow up over the smallest perceived slight. There were definitely some issues there, but I had been floating along pretty much okay with things until she started complaining to me more often.

  12. ventor's advocate*

    This response seems to assume that the boss is a reasonable person, decent at the job, and that her priority is productivity. What is an employee to do when this is not the case? Are they complaining because it’s arbitrary rules the manager is creating that hinder work or abuse power, or is it just to complain that their job is changing and they don’t like it?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If your boss is unreasonable and bad at the job, complaining about every decision is still not going to be the right move. You figure out where to best use your capital and try to let the rest roll off of you … and if you find you can’t do that, it’s a sign that you need to move on because being in a job where you feel compelled to argue every small decision or assignment is terrible for your mental health, your reputation, and the people around you … and it’s not effective anyway.

      1. Greengirl*

        This so much. I left a toxic workplace a few months ago where we were dealing with a lot of bad decisions coming from the top from people who would not listen to us when we pointed out problems. A couple of coworkers had settled into complaining about everything and arguing about everything to the detriment of everyone else in the office. I kept telling them that the best thing to do was just keep their heads down, work hard, build their resumes and get out rather than expanding all this energy on fighting everything. The powers that be clearly were not going to listen so it was better to pick battles. Because I didn’t complain that much, I found that my direct supervisor was more willing to listen to me too about things that were in her power to change versus my coworkers.

  13. NW Mossy*

    I’m grappling with this myself, and especially the bit about “I’ll do it but…” I named this behavior for an employee recently as a form of resistance to change, and she was a bit shocked that I interpreted it that way. She expressed to me that she was saying that to try to communicate her willingness, not fight. I’m of several different minds about how plausible a rationale I think that is, but we’ll see if shining a light on the behavior will make it scuttle back into a dark corner.

    1. ZVA*

      I have to say, that seems pretty implausible to me. If all she wants to do is communicate willingness, why not just say “I’ll do it”? What purpose does the “but” serve—especially coming after “I’ll do it”? That says reluctance, not willingness, to me.

      It does sound like the kind of thing that simply calling attention to might fix, though.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’ll sometimes say something like “I’m of course glad to do it this way if you want me to, but I wanted to point out a potential downside in case we should factor that in” (or “but I wonder if it would be better to do it X way instead” or so forth).

        I think it depends on what follows the “but” (and the tone and whether it’s occasional or constant).

      2. Rusty Shackelford*

        I could agree with you if the person said “I’ll do it but I’m not happy about it.” But if that’s not the case, I agree with Mossy’s employee. Sometimes what comes after the “but” isn’t reluctance, but simply additional information that you want to make sure isn’t being lost. I’ll do it, but it means I won’t have time to finish the Sucracorp project. I’ll do it, but it will take me a week to brush up on my Esperanto. I’ll do it, but it will be almost impossible without Jane’s assistance.

        What comes before the “but” might even be the part that doesn’t exactly serve a purpose. (Although I once had a boss who would interpret “How do you want this done?” to mean “I don’t want to do this,” so if you didn’t start out with “I’ll do it,” you already had a black mark against you.)

    2. MissGirl*

      Sadly, I get this. Sometimes I complain to show how what you’re asking is difficult but I’m going to do it. It’s the hope that you’ll pat me on the head and give me kudos for doing such a difficult task. It’s behavior I’m working to curtail.

      1. alter_ego*

        yuuuuuuuuup. I 100% see myself in this comment, and it’s something I’m really working hard to get rid of.

      2. NW Mossy*

        I absolutely see shades of this, not just with this employee but others as well. If I’m assigning someone something I think will challenge them, I’ll often say just that because it’s helpful to acknowledge that.

        However, you’re right that it can wear thin to fish for a compliment from your boss. Some bosses (and I include myself in this category sometimes) don’t dole out enough positive feedback and create the pond to fish in, so to speak, but if your boss is in the habit of noticeably acknowledging your good works on a regular basis, it can come off as if you’re looking for a level of emotional uplift that goes beyond the job.

        1. MissGirl*

          Very true. I was at a company where I felt like what I did wasn’t appreciated and not understood. However, my passive aggressive behavior backfired as I was seen as defensive when asked to do something. There were definitely better ways for me to have handled it, and I hope I’ve grown as an employee since then.

    3. Confused Teapot Maker*

      I could be your employee. People are given a fair bit of independence at my job, which means our manager, Fergus, doesn’t always have perfect oversight of things. As a result, he often ends up asking for things which will be tricky to pull off. So the phrase “I’ll do it but…” is not uncommon for me, with the part after “but” being to manage his expectations – for example, “I’ll do it but the Chestertons haven’t sent over form A yet so I’ll need to leave boxes 20-23 blank for now and finish it off when I have all the information. Let me know if that’s a problem.” or “I’m happy to do it but I’m also supposed to be signing off the Walters account today and might not have time for both. It would really help if you told me which to prioritise”

      It seems to work fine most of the time. There’s been a few times when Fergus has interpreted it as push back, however, so it would be great to find another solution to this. I’d be really upset the discover that Fergus thought I was massive complainer!

      1. NW Mossy*

        You gave a couple of nice examples of how what follows the “but” matters, as does tone in response. I raised it for my employee because it tends to be accompanied by an aggrieved tone and demeanor that gives a heavy subtext of “I’ll do it because you’re making me, but here are all the reasons why I think this is the worst idea since sundresses in Antarctica.” My basic litmus test for this kind of thing is if you can replace “but” with a period or “and” without significantly changing your meaning, you’re probably fine.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Some people don’t fully express their thoughts, they think that the implication is very clear.

      I was shocked to hear that the song “American Woman” was a tribute to Canadian women. I did not get that out of the lyrics AT ALL.
      But this is how some people communicate.

      I worked for a boss who had this style of communication:

      Boss: “How is A doing?”
      Me: “A is done.”
      Boss: “Well, you can start B and I want it done in half the time.”

      From that I was supposed to hear, “Hey great job on A. Thanks for busting butt and getting that done a week early.”
      Boss was totally baffled that I did not get that was what she meant. I mean she did not understand at all. I could not get it across to her that if she did not speak those words I would not have any way of knowing.

      Call it surrounding context, call it fully expressing a thought, or whatever but a lot of people do not realize how many parts they skip when they speak.

  14. Writer of Concern*

    I think there are a lot of great suggestions here and I am thankful to each of you. We have weekly one on one meetings so I’m planning to bump up the “what’s going on?” discussion at our next one to see if I can get to the root of the problem there. She’s an extremely productive employee (she gets her deadlines in on time, and done correctly; she’s creative at problem solving; and is a very reliable team member) so I want to make sure she feels supported and has a safe place to air her grievances. But, I also need to make sure that rest of the team feels supported, especially since they have openly given me their concerns about the volume of complaints that are being aired on their time.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I think you can tell her that it’s a burden to other people, and it clogs the momentum. And maybe she just has a bad brain-to-mouth filter, or needs to realize it’s not the right place.

    2. Purest Green*

      It sounds like your employee is reasonable, so I imagine this will go smoothly for both of you, but good luck regardless!

  15. Robin*

    This is a frequent occurrence at my job – I work for a federal agency and we have a person on the admin team (we are a team of administrative assistants) who support two divisions each. “Jane” uses the martyr complex and the race card to call attention to herself. She is a Latina, but she has uses the fact that she has been here the longest to help people (it’s not help, it makes her look like she is helping but there is always a payback issue).

    1. Cambridge Comma*

      You might want to rethink the ‘playing the race card’ expression. It makes you sound like you don’t treat people equally.

      1. this*

        I didn’t take it take it that why. I saw it as Jane trying to claim that she “is” treated differently when she isn’t. Particularly in light of the martyr complex remark.

        1. MyFakeNameIsLaura*

          Right, but we don’t know that Jane isn’t being treated differently. So many people do indeed treat people of color differently without realizing it until it’s directly pointed out, and even then 9 times out of ten they’re pretty defensive or in denial about it. Plus it is very difficult to point out covert racism without well, uh, being accused of having a chip on your shoulder or having a “martyr complex”.

          It’s entirely possible that Jane has experienced racism and discrimination in her role in the past and is currently experiencing it. If her defensiveness is a problem then address that head on without speculating why she’s acting that way or deciding it’s because she’s Latina.

      2. Charlie*

        It also sounds like the internet comments whenever anybody says anything about someone being a racist.

  16. Just Jess*

    I’ve done my best to reread the question and Allison’s response since I immediately felt empathy for the employee who is pushing back on assignment changes. That being said, I can’t help but wonder if the manager could also become better at articulating their vision for projects, the team, and the team’s place within the organization. This would be a way of getting ahead of endless questioning and pushback from employees. This employee almost certainly does have poor judgment and I am in complete agreement with addressing the lack of professionalism in the way they are pushing back. However, there might also be room for additional communication and transparency regarding the new assignments/assignment changes.

    The world is full of unreasonable employees who lack professionalism and technical/cognitive/emotional skills; I’m really taking that “she doesn’t understand why” part to heart though.

  17. Kit*

    I have a staff member who doesn’t push back, but he bristles at everything. In the moment I usually take it as a cue to elaborate on *why* I’m telling him to do what I’m telling him to do, but I worry it comes off as weedling/cajoling when I should just be able to give him a task without justifying it. Should I just go on as I have been and take it as part of his personality to question things, or should I say something? Or ignore it and give tasks without elaborating? It’s almost always just reluctant/annoyed body language, not real push back.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In general, it’s good to always explain the “why,” so I wouldn’t stop doing that. Or are you saying that you go on and on about the why in an effort to convince him?

      1. Kit*

        I think I’m just overthinking it because I’m in a male-dominated industry and my staff is all male. I second-guess my delivery a lot, trying to avoid phrasing instructions as questions or uptalking.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I might start with the “why” first w/ him. And since it’s upfront, don’t let it come up again after.

  18. Stef*

    I’d also point out to this employee that you lose credibility if you point out issues or problems EVERY.SINGLE.TIME a new direction is taken. Help her understand that complaints have much more value if they come from people who are not perceived as “the office complainer”.

  19. Recruit-o-rama*

    This feels so familiar that I wonder if the OP is my boss. If it is, I want her to know that the rest of the team is annoyed too, but we know it’s not your fault! I hope Alison’s advice helps you put a stop to it!

  20. Complainy Complainerson*

    I needed to read this today. I think I’ve effectively become the office complainer. I don’t like it. I’m sure my boss doesn’t like it. I have a newish boss who basically doesn’t do feedback. Doesn’t give it. Doesn’t want it. Doesn’t take it well when I try. Even though this has been driven home to me every time he ignores or dismisses my input I find it hard not to weigh in. With my previous manager, I had a very collaborative relationship and a lot of influence. He regularly sought input from me and other senior managers, and seemed to enjoy talking through decisions before making them. He was also very open to feedback about things that weren’t working and suggestions about changes. My new manager clearly doesn’t want that type of relationship with me since he is nonresponsive to any feedback I try to give and makes no effort to seek similar input or buy-in before making changes. But it’s been harder than I thought it would be to give that influence up.

    Reading the comments here I realize that no matter who is at fault, it’s probably having a worse effect both on our relationship and the morale of my colleagues, who I’m sure can see me struggling with this relationship than I probably realized. I decided several months ago to start job searching but I’m in a senior management position in a very small, very specialized field so I know that realistically it could take me a long time to find something new so I have to figure out a way to be more accepting of changes I clearly am not going to have any input into in the meantime.

    1. Bad Candidate*

      I know I can come off this way sometimes too. It’s not my intent to be this way, I don’t see them as complaints, merely as concerns and “Yes, but have you thought of this.” Type things. But our management doesn’t see it that way. They say they want feedback and to hear our concerns, but they only want to hear from the butt kissers who don’t do a very good job to start with and thus don’t have a good feel of how to do the job properly. At some point you have to stop pointing out to the pilot to not lean on the stick and go grab a parachute for yourself.

      1. fposte*

        Ideally there’s a sweet spot, where you can say “Yes, but” sometimes when it matters but it’s not the default pattern. However, I know how hard that can be when being the brakes has turned into your organizational role. At that point I think you have two choices: if you’re ignored, you absolutely, as you say, grab your parachute and you quit the behavior because the absence of upside means all there is is downside; if you’re listened to, you talk to your manager one on one about the problem of being cast as the perennial Yes but person and ask if there’s a way for you to give critical feedback sometimes at a different part of the process.

        Ultimately, even if there’s a reason to question every decision, it’s a losing strategy.

      2. Charlie*

        Listen to your language: those who agree with management or don’t provide strident feedback as”butt-kissers” who don’t know how to do the job and aren’t entitled to weigh in, and management is a pilot leaning on the stick. That comes off as exceptionally arrogant, dismissive and negative. If you don’t see how negative your tone is here, you may not be accurately judging whether your “concerns” are excessively negative and come off as complaints, or whether “yes but have you thought of this” comes off as arrogantly second-guessing everything your boss says.

    2. Argh!*

      Sometimes in meetings I want to ask “If you don’t care about what we think why are we here? Why not just send us all an email telling us what to think?”

    3. Charlie*

      One thing I’ve trained myself to try to consider: is this the hill I want to die on today? Whether it’s with a toddler or with a boss, it forces me to really evaluate whether the capital I’m going to burn is worth the foreseeable outcome.

      At this point, you’ve got plenty of indication that your boss doesn’t want your input. That’s not a hill worth dying on, and I think you realize you’re dying on it.

  21. TootsNYC*

    I might say the “let’s talk about this in our next one-on-one” each time, just because “one-on-one” might remind her of our earlier conversation about it.

    There’s also, “If you’re just venting, I’m going to ask that we not spend everyone’s time on that right now.”

  22. Argh!*

    I used to work with a disruptive person like this, and he was also insubordinate behind my boss’s back. He had a cadre of coworkers who would follow him instead of the boss. Sadly, the boss was fired, and he sucked up to the new boss – leaving his old behavior behind.

    This person was a total narcissist (I worked closely with him – I’m not exaggerating) and very manipulative.

    There’s a difference between raising an issue and competing for the role of top-brain-in-the-room. Rather than merely shutting it down, asking the rest of the room for their input sends a signal that opinions are valued but doesn’t give one person any more caché than anyone else. Then it becomes a matter of “Well, it seems that everyone else is okay with this, so thanks for your input, but we’re going with gray teapots instead of green.”

  23. Bloo*

    My daughter’s former roommate was hired by mutual friend at her veterinary clinic. My daughter later told me that our friend wasn’t giving roommate hardly any hours. Noting that was a past complaint of roommate about previous jobs, I mentioned to my daughter, “it sounds like [mutual friend] wants to fire [roommate] but would like her to quit instead.”

    A few weeks later, Mutual Friend’s BFF came to see my husband for a health modality treatment and told him the Mutual Friend loathes Roommate. Why? She. Argues. Everything. Nothing she is told to do is done without comments, debates, demands for explanations and whatnot. She’s exhausting to everyone in the clinic. She is also always 5-10 mins late for every shift she does get.

    Mutual Friend probably, I’m guessing, runs a casual office and doesn’t want to deal with documenting for firing and the discomfort of having to deal with firing her because of all the mutual friends they have. Last I heard she’s *still* the for one shift a week.

  24. Sabine the Very Mean*

    Anybody else have someone on their team who frequently complains but does it in a way s/he considers a joke and laughs whilst uttering the complaint? “I-hahaha- hate this coffee! haha don’t you just want to scream? haha!” I find these complainers to be even more hostile as it puts this strange twist on it like there’s some sick joke you are supposed to be in on.

    1. Charlie*

      Bat it back into their court. “Seems fine to me, what do you mean?” Straight face, not laughing along, sorta deadpan.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        that’s a good one. My Oma is the queen of, “what did you mean by that?” when someone offends her. It works wonders.

        1. Christine*

          I’ve seen people say stuff they need to say and approach it as a joke because they lack the verbal skills to have the conversation. Have had the experience of a family member that would say mean things, than turn around say it’s a joke when you got offended. I’ve heard of that in a work environment, but haven’t suffered through it. Some individuals will consider being snarky as being funny.

          Sometimes people are unaware of how they come across. Sometimes I realize that I expect the worse when something is said, because of my filter of past experiences in this job; but it’s not. Things have improved so much this last year, but the anxiety from my first year here hasn’t gone away.

          1. Charlie*

            I think “saying mean things, then insisting it’s a joke” is the mark of someone who’s a butthead but lacks the conviction to stick to their guns, not someone who can’t articulate what they need to say.

            1. fposte*

              Oh, I think it can go either way. Being direct about negative views and feelings is a skill like any other piece of communications, and not everybody learns it right away–or ever.

  25. Christine*

    Constant complaining can wear down the morale of a department. One sour puss can effect everyone in the office. As someone put it about someone I know: “She sucks the air out of the department.” This person has been told, and it’s been a huge difference over the six months.

    If an individual constantly complains and vents, it will take away the effectiveness of a major concern that management needs to address. It will make everything they state less important, because it’ll be considered a part of a pattern that everyone has learned to ignore.

  26. Temperance*

    I think I’ve been in your employee’s position, LW. At my last job, I had a male peer who wasn’t given as much responsibility/as many tasks as I had been given, and our joint boss kept tapping me to help her with extra marketing and related projects. I had difficulty finding the words to bring up the inherent unfairness of our workloads, so I would end up complaining when I was assigned more work or asking why Male Peer wasn’t being asked to do X task.

  27. cncx*

    i mentioned in a second level comment how i had a complainy coworker who actually wound up having a secret agenda- he complained in meetings because he didn’t respect the boss’ authority and wanted to stick it to him.

    more broadly, i think people who complain don’t realize how toxic it is to other coworkers. in my first job i had a crap boss (she really was). i complained- a lot- to a coworker, who finally snapped one day and was like “look, our boss is crap, i hate her too, but i am paid to do a job here and i just want to do my job with the least drama and negativity possible. I get you, i really do, but i need to not listen to you complain for my own mood, ok?”

    thanks coworker for teaching me that lesson at 18 years old. dealing with constant griping is so exhausting. she shut me down while still giving me the validation i needed that she was on my side, which is how i like to handle it when people complain to me just to vent.

  28. Lady Tech*

    I have a coworker who is a good performer and generally fun to work with but he has a bit of a chronic complainer thing that can be really irritating at times. Fortunately he usually comes down eventually and realizes his reaction was unnecessary, but it can be painfully awkward when it happens during staff meetings and the complaint is about something our boss has asked him to take care of. I just want to telepathically beam him a message of “Dude, is this really worth it?” but its just not the time or place to ask him to chill out.

  29. Writer of Concern (UPDATE)*

    Hi Everyone,

    I wanted to follow up with how things went with the one on one meeting.

    First, to clarify, these changes are due to a full organizational move to perform through the “Toyota Lean” principles, these changes are not changes I’m blindly creating, but ones that have come from above my pay level. Every department is going through some pretty serious revamps, and there has been a culture of doing things one way so this is creating a few ruffled feathers with the “old guard”. We do have monthly all staff meetings where major changes for all departments is reported on to provide transparency. These meetings are not mandatory, and I have not been keeping tabs on when the team attends or not.

    Before the one on one meeting I did a quick level load analysis to make sure that she hasn’t been assigned more work than her other team members (I wanted to be one step ahead here) – and our team has a pretty balanced work load. At the one on one meeting, I approached the subject through questions to get a better idea of how she interprets her workload, and how the changes might be impacting her workload. I stepped into the subject of her complaints as easily as I could and she was quick to the surprise that she was coming across so negative and seemed genuinely concerned. She did indicate that she has been going through some personal changes outside of work and said she felt overwhelmed with so much change in her life and not having a place that is steady to retreat to. She also admitted that she has not been attending the all staff meetings where departmental reports can be heard because she doesn’t have the time.

    We discussed our Employee Assistance Program so that she can seek some help with her personal issues, and I will be providing a summary of the departmental changes that come out from the all staff meetings on a monthly basis. My hope is that this will be a second avenue for transparency.

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