Everyone needs to blow off steam. It’s a critical element of self-care, and helps to keep us from internalizing bad feelings, or worse, lashing out in a sudden outburst. But too much negativity can foster more negativity, potentially making everyone in the office feel unhappy. In the workplace, negativity can spread like a virus — affecting morale, processes, and output.
And grumpy coworkers are the hosts, spreading their grumpy germs all over the office.
Chronically grumpy coworkers are difficult to give feedback to. They’re difficult to give assignments to. They’re difficult to accept direction from. They’re basically difficult all around.
If everyone’s grumpy, what you’re left with is a torture chamber of unspoken tension and not-so-unspoken outbursts. This, objectively, sucks.
The psychology makes sense. Ruminating can make you feel depressed, and can even interfere with sleep. Unhappy employees are defensive and don’t produce as much as their satisfied, pleasantly challenged colleagues. Negativity begets negativity, and without sound strategies in place to combat that, every element of your business can unravel.
When negativity takes over, the culture and values you aspire to get undermined by human emotions. This is not an exaggeration, but it isn’t hysteria either. The good news is, people can be nurtured out of negatives cycles of thinking.
6 Tips for Dealing with Grumpy Coworkers
1. Identify what people are blowing off steam about in the first place.
The higher up you are in your company, the harder it might be to get a direct line to what people are grumpy about. When it’s client-related or related to one particular project, that’s a little easier. It may be as simple as asking. (The solution may not be as simple.)
If there are issues related to operations and policies, those complaints may be shared outside of the circles that management runs in. Which isn’t to say you should launch an inquisition into what people are complaining about. In fact, that’s a quick way to erode trust and happiness. Adults don’t respond well to being treated like kids in a middle school assembly. But you should make it clear that feedback will be received gracefully and without knee-jerk reactions or consequences.
Your culture itself will inform whether or not an employee or colleague feels comfortable telling you that something about the workplace isn’t meshing with their happiness and satisfaction.
2. Without treating people like children, discourage aimless complaining.
This is tough. As parents know, lecturing often results in sullen, resentful kids. Lecturing adults may result in similar feelings of discomfort and resentment. Focus not on the behavior you want to discourage, but the behavior you want to encourage.
Model positivity. Try to pair a potential solution with every problem you present. If someone presents a problem, work collaboratively to brainstorm solutions.
Avoid making blanket statements. Statements like “stop gossiping” are too open-ended and will likely leave every single person in your organization mentally combing through everything they’ve said to anyone for the past three months.
Clear the air. It’s perfectly okay to point out that too much negativity gives everyone a dark outlook. Engaged employees fostering positivity are like the healthy white blood cells of an office infected with grumpiness.
3. Establish a culture of problem-solving and empower employees to affect change.
Ever used a swear jar to curb a bad habit? You can use similar processes to curb the bad habit of complaining aimlessly. Make problem-solving a company-wide, positive goal — without framing it as a criticism. The last thing you want to do is lead your employees to feel like they can’t say anything negative. Instead, encourage solutions whenever challenges and frustrations are presented.
Not everything can be solved quickly or easily — or at all. But a mind frame shift from open-ended complaining to brainstorming potential solutions will build a sense of momentum.
Be patient. Much like learning how to apologize gracefully, learning to curb complaining takes practice. These are skills adults are still developing throughout their lives and careers. (So it’s going to take some time.)
Make sure your employees know they can be part of the solutions, and that they’re heard. You can’t phone this in. You need to show your commitment and drive the momentum. Present opportunities to participate in solutions, and what outcomes looked like once solutions were put into place.
4. If something really sucks, acknowledge it — and fix it if you can.
In every industry, there are times when teams have to come together to power through stressful situations. Long hours, grueling travel, unexpected challenges, something breaking on a Sunday afternoon. Oftentimes all it takes is some recognition to turn a negative experience into a positive outcome. Make it a goal to reward extra effort with both acknowledgment and concrete benefits. And when you celebrate, show admiration for the positivity of your team.
Some things that suck aren’t circumstantial and need to be addressed at an operational level. Problem solving is an ecosystem. Be transparent as you make improvements. When your team sees every step of a solution, they’ll be more patient with you and more appreciative of what it takes to put better systems into place.
5. Provide opportunities for positive interactions, acknowledgment and good feedback.
It’s very easy to say you have an open and honest culture. It’s harder to live it, and it’s an ongoing process. At Big Sea, we practice the Situation – Behavior – Impact (SBI) Feedback model whenever possible. This takes a lot of emotion and negativity out of feedback. But it also takes a ton of practice.
When implementing a better feedback model in the workplace, make a big deal out of it. Host workshops. Roleplay and practice. Changing ingrained habits doesn’t come naturally to people. But the reward is tremendous once you’ve changed how your employees give feedback and interact with each other.
The other side of this coin is the inherent power dynamics at play between leadership teams and employees. It’s not that complicated to give feedback within teams. It’s a challenge to give feedback to leaders. People will worry about consequences. When livelihoods are perceived to be on the line, you’re not always going to hear every complaint.
And there’s no easy solution there. Define the relationship you want, the communication styles you aspire to, and then model them every day. One small slip-up, one off-hand comment … these are unfortunately what will be remembered. So get to work focusing on positive interactions that build trust. You are the first line of defense against workplace grumpiness.
6. Don’t dehumanize anyone. Ever.
This should go without saying. But when tempers run high, it’s very easy to villainize people you don’t agree with. The thing is, villains aren’t humans, they’re evil cartoon characters. Villains don’t deserve respect or empathy.
Your clients and the people you work with come to the table with a rich spectrum of experiences. The terse person on the phone may have been pulled over on the way to work. The unresponsive email contact might be dealing with chronic illness. Or maybe someone simply struggles with the communication style you excel at.
And, of course, some people have abrasive personalities. But they’re still human. When you make them the super-villain of your day, you run the risk of failing to see or address their basic human needs.
When you go down that path, you’re not only disrespecting them, you’re missing out on opportunities to use your emotional intelligence to elevate a project, identify new solutions, or even sell more business.
Phew, that’s a lot. But you’ve got this.
If you take away one thing from this, it should be that getting out of a negative rut is an ongoing way of life, not a flip you can switch — for yourself or others. The rewards are great if you’re willing to put the work in. Grumpiness is contagious, but it also can be cured with communication, behavior modeling, a healthy dose of effort.