Monday, July 6, 2009

Team member who complains incessantly

A reader (manager to a group of 12 employees) sent a query asking: How to manage a team member who complains incessantly? Should he involve HR in resolving the issue?

So here’s my take on the subject. You don’t need to manage/tolerate his tantrums. Unless his complaints are for valid reasons and you are not seeing them as clearly as him. Really. Many of them may ask you to tolerate him and not respond/empathize with him and in due course he’ll leave you alone. Yes, he’ll leave you alone and will pick on someone else. He’ll not stop until he has griped about everything under the sun to everyone on the team. That’s something the team can live without. They have enough on their own plates to worry about. So avoiding the situation will only aggravate it to a large extent. Even to the point of your team lodging a formal complaint!

If you have reached a state where you are complaining about him, then I wonder how much the team has already gone through! Further, your team right now is not appreciative of the fact that you haven’t done anything as yet about the issue. You are their manager and they are expecting you to lead them out of this issue too.

First, set up a discussion with the employee, to sort things out. Yes, you are ready to listen, but only up to a point where his complaints make sense. No. You did not set up the discussion to hear him complain about the sun, stars, moon, pavements, bus, stairs or movies, among a thousand other things that might have no relation to your work activities. If it does (which I seriously doubt), you listen and act accordingly to resolve it. But I doubt if that would have been the case, else others would have had some opinions too. Right now, they are having an issue with him! It’s because they don’t think it’s worthy of spending their time. Your discussions as a manager should be towards identifying the factors that are causing the team member to act that way. Identify why is he complaining so often? Maybe he is just asking to be heard. It could either be that simple or complicated up to a point where he needs some professional help! You can decide further course of action based on your meeting. Why have you waited so long to talk to him? I wonder. Sorry, I digress.

But it’s hard to explain things without data points. Don’t make your discussions seem vague. Without factual data it will sound more like an accusation/allegation. It will backfire. On the other hand, don’t line up a hundred situations where he displayed such behavior and spend time investigating. It will seem like finger pointing. It might send him towards extreme behavior. He could end up a bigger jerk. Use the data points to tell him where you felt he could have done without complaining. Give him the confidence to come straight to you, if he does have genuine complain. But you need to tell him, that his current behavior/attitude is hurting the team and his standing among team members. It could end up hurting team morale, balance or even productivity. It’s like the case of the person who cried wolves too many times. No one will take him seriously even if he has a real reason to complain!

Should you involve HR? Maybe not until you’ve had your first discussion. If the problem persists, then rope in HR for future discussions. HR may not have a policy that tells you how to handle such team members. They will help you understand the situation from a third person’s perspective and take fair decisions. The end result, however, will be based on your call. You don’t want to sound like you went complaining to HR about him! You are the manager and you need to have that tough discussion with him. Yes, you need HR’s help when he doesn’t get the message.

In case you have tried your best to resolve the issue in a professional manner, but find that nothing much has changed. That’s when you ask, do you really want such a person on your team?