How to Deal with Toxic Complainers: Bobby Black-Hole
The Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want.” You can’t always choose the people you work with either. But when you have a choice, avoid relationships with toxic complainers.
- Negative opinions are more powerful than positive.
- Hanging with negative people makes you a negative person.
- Stress from negativity makes you stupid.
How to deal with Bobby Black-Hole:
Mr. Black-Hole is a spiraling vortex of despair.
If you enjoy dark clouds and dreary days, listen to the repeated complaints of Mr. Black-Hole month after mind-numbing month.
Tip: Monitor conversations. How much time is spent complaining? Solution-finding?
Skillful leaders understand that conversations have trajectory.
Positive conversations generate options and solutions. Negative conversations focus on problems.
Conversations that exclude solution-finding reflect learned helplessness. Mr. Black-Hole has stopped trying because he feels he can’t make change.
Symptoms of learned helplessness include lack of motivation, stress, anxiety, perfectionism, and burnout.
Tip: Spend more time generating solutions and less time complaining about problems. Try a 4:1 ratio; five minutes focused on problems and 20 minutes generating solutions. (I realize that’s a lofty goal.)
Dealing with Mr. Black-Hole:
- Connect. “Oh, that must be frustrating.”
- “How long has this been happening?”
- “How have you tried to improve this concern?”
- “Why are we talking about this if you haven’t tried to fix it?”
- “I’m just curious; are you asking me to fix this?”
- “Hey Mr. Black-Hole, this is the third time we’ve talked about the same issue. Let’s talk about something else.”
- If Mr. Black-Hole continues to spiral, do your best to avoid him. You might introduce him to someone you don’t like.
If you have a strong relationship with Mr. Black-Hole, give him a compassionate kick in the pants. “If you weren’t complaining, what would you be saying?”
An imperfect step forward is better than circling the black-hole.
How might leaders deal with chronic complainers?
The Secret to Dealing with Chronic Complainers (Huffpost)
How might leaders deal with chronic complainers? Historically for me “Straighten up and fly right” or hit the road! If we tolerate the infestation of negativity we are sinking the ship, periodically some attitudes develop that need curbed, starting with ” I understand your frustration what would you like to do to solve the problem”?
Often “the whiners” just like to be heard and usually settle down, surely by addressing with them one on one is my first choice. Sometimes you need to assemble the group and nip it up front immediately or the entire operation suffers. The other side of the story perhaps there truly is something that has manifested that no one has addressed so thinking of the “whining could be legitimate and search out a solution.
I see this coming down to “Control, Tolerance and Accountability”, someone needs to be prepared to make the tough choices!
I usually told them the importance of time from outset. And “let’s solve it together “ strategy. It saves time.
Your suggestion if 5/20 minutes is really perfect.
Thanks Kahlid. I’m glad you found the 5/20 approach useful.
Thanks Tim. I find that that a strong relationship with people helps with straight talk. But, it can be difficult to develop strong relationships with chronic complainers.
There’s good research for dealing with negativity as quickly as possible. Chronic complainers, as you indicate, are contagious.
“You might introduce him to someone you don’t like.” 🤣🤣🤣
Thanks Ron. Glad you saw the humor. Best to you.
Clicked on the Learned Helplessness link. A very interesting read that explains a lot about employee behavior.
Thanks Tim. Learned Helplessness has made me realize that leaders sometimes create the helplessness in others. Helping too soon, for example.
Glad you found it useful.
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Provide data. “In the last 6 minutes you have complained about 7 different things. ” (Some complainers don’t realize how negative they have become.)
Ask them to prioritize. “What is your top problem or issue at the current time?” (Victims and complainers like to give an endless list of problems and issues, so it’s an excuse do nothing.)
Have them problem-solve. “What is one or two actions can you take to resolve this issue.” (They need to own the solution.)
What are the consequences of their negative behavior on others? (They often don’t realize how their constant complaining negatively impacts others.
Thanks Paul. It’s true. We don’t realize how much we complain until we get real intentional about noticing it. I’ve done this a few times and, sad to say, I have a real knack for complaining.
I appreciate the perspective on taking empathy. I have been a black hole at times and I’ve been a positive source at times. As I’ve become more experienced, I’m learning that I don’t need to validate someone else or agree with them or try to solve their problems for them. Simply saying, “that sounds rough” I think is a kind, supportive strategy to build trust. I also would add that asking questions from a coaching perspective-helping someone find their own solution-might be another way to help a negative person gain a different perspective. People engage in behaviors that “work” for them even if I may find those behaviors unpleasant, so I do like the “seek to understand” suggestions offered today.
Thanks Martin. Powerful insight. Empathy isn’t endorsement of someones actions or encouragement to continue doing harmful things. It’s acknowledgement. I think empathy is an essential factor in relationship building. People need to feel understood, even if you end up disagreeing with them. Empathy may be one of the most under-used and under-developed leadership qualities.
Sometimes a chronic complainer is a signal to actually fix a problem. If someone is only allowed to complain once or even twice when they see an issue with something out of their control or influence – what happens if it just continues? Do they then just ignore it. Example: You ask for support on a product you bought. The company offers you a fix that doesn’t work. Next time they point you at a solution that isn’t relevant. Third time they say everything is fine their end so they don’t think there is a problem. If you ask to escalate your complaint to someone more superior are you being a Bobby Black Hole?
Thanks Stuart. Great point. I’m glad you jumped in today. Every complaint isn’t a sign that a person is a habitual complainer. Perhaps the key questions include… is the person a habitual complainer and are they willing to work to make improvements.
I’ll add, that because bad is stronger than good, most of us could notice good a little more often and talk about bad a little less often.
I figure that listening to complaints is part of my job. Still, it’s bothersome when it’s a repeated complaint that neither the complainer nor I can fix, and when the complainer otherwise is a high performer.
Thanks Sam. So true. Leaders listen to complaints. The issue is what are we going to do about it.
Right, Dan. Thanks for your excellent post today, as always.