How to tame the office whinger

How do you turn a workplace toxic in no time at all? Hire a whinger. The office grouch is inevitably loud, can complain for Australia, and can easily turn the happiest colleagues into a mob of moaners.

If you've accidentally hired a habitual whinger, or one of your employees morphs into a grumbler, take heed of these 10 tips. They could save your sanity - and, quite possibly, your business.

1. What are your unspoken ground rules?

A person will only become a whinger at work is if it's accepted and encouraged, says Garie Dooley, partner at Leading Teams.

He says in high-performing teams, constant bellyaching simply isn't tolerated. In others, it's allowed to creep in.

"No one will say to them [staff], 'it's OK to whinge around here,' but if you see it and it gets rewarded, people listen and they start to buy into it."

2. Give your staff purpose

Dooley is working with one small business that has "no clarity about why they should be in a team or even working together".

"As a business owner you must ask what sort of shape is your team in to deliver on what you want to do?" he asks. "It's important to understand why the team or business exists."

3. Listen to what people are talking about

"What sort of conversation do you hear your employees having?" asks Dooley.

If they never go any deeper than talking about the footy or the weather, and you don't take much of an interest either, it's going to be hard to raise difficult issues when needed.

"There are only two reasons people don't say anything: a) The relationship isn't strong enough to carry the conversation; and b) It might be OK to whinge in that environment," he says.

4. Build a good culture

As a business owner, it's not always up to you to micromanage the office whinger, says Rhett Morris, owner of Bulletproof People.

Most of the time it's better if a workmate takes the initiative.

"You'll see in any sporting team - often they think it's the captain's responsibility to deal with the whinger, but a good captain has built a really great culture," says Morris. "Often the bullet firing, or the comment, is being delivered peer to peer.

"In a small business you've got to be able to protect the owner or that senior person from this sort of crap as much as you possibly can."

However, he says good leaders will prevent major flare-ups by giving their team the chance to air concerns.

"In small teams that have really good transparency, normally the whinger just doesn't last," says Morris.

5. Don't "feed" the whinger

It's important not to buy into the whingeing, says Morris.

"Often the whinge is what gets them the attention they are looking for and they feed off that."

While you should listen if the complaint is legitimate, pointless gripes should be dealt with by keeping staff members accountable, he says.

If, for example, an employee wastes hours whining about how busy they are, it might pay to say: 'Well, take me through your last three hours'. Suddenly they're held accountable. It takes the fuel out of the whinge."

6. Pick your moment

It pays to find the right time to keep your staff accountable.

"If you call someone out in a meeting they're going to become defensive... and that can look a bit like bullying," says Morris.

7. Respond quickly

While the habitual whinger is sometimes beyond help, the average employee who starts to make a habit of it should be dealt with pronto, says Morris.

"That's the one you want to get into the office pretty quickly and ask if everything is OK in their personal life."

Find out what the real issue is. If there's a problem at home, take firm steps.

"You could say, 'How about for the next two days we need to give you some more flexibility and we'll review it again in two days?'" says Morris.

"There's a start and an end to that practical help."

8. Leave some room for venting

Morris says airing grievances can still be a healthy thing, in small doses.

"It's still OK for people to have a bitch and a moan; it's just about knowing the appropriate time and place and person to do it with," he says.

And in a world of virtual whingeing, a rant can easily find its way to Facebook, damaging your brand.

9. Get your staff involved

At his business, Morris and his staff have come up with a set of "whingeing conditions".

If anyone starts going over the top, they are pulled up on their behaviour.

10. Think of the risks if you don't do anything

If business owners fail to deal with their habitual whinger, there's a chance that person will not only slow the business down, but scare off the staff they actually want to keep.

"They lose two or three people, and good people as well because they just get jack of this toxic environment," says Morris.

Garie Dooley agrees, saying: "You'll be left with a small business where everybody whinges.

"If they have got the ability to change but don't want to, the really good solid question to ask is 'what's the risk if I keep them?'"

Sydney Morning Herald