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Complainers Kill Your Brain. But You Can’t Kill The Complainers. So Here’s What To Do.

Old man yells at clouds.

As a Product Manager, you’ve probably heard a complaint once or twice.

Working through uncomfortable issues with customers can be challenging. But, personally, I find complaints from inside the company to be way more taxing than complaints from the outside world.

Sitting in the nexus of engineering, marketing, finance, and the rest of the company, Product can sometimes feel like the central dumping ground for all the abject misery roiling through an organization.

The good news is: It doesn’t need to be that way.

Why Do People Complain So Much?

Psychotherapist F. Diane Barth cites three reasons why chronic complainers complain so chronically:

  1. They are deeply distressed by something they feel powerless to change;
  2. They feel angry and sad about the situation, and worry it’s partially or entirely their own fault;
  3. They do not know how to soothe themselves.

Because the complainers are mired in whatever situation they’re stuck in — feeling unloved by their boss, confused by the company’s direction, sad that their pet project was killed, whatever — you won’t really be able to help them because you can’t change their situation and you can’t change their feelings about their situation.

Chronic Complaining Is Not Just Annoying, It’s A Productivity Killer

For real:

  • 78% of people report a loss of 3 to 6 hours each week because of complainers
  • This unproductive time costs companies $4,600 to $9,200 per year per employee
  • Over $513 billion is being wasted annually on complainers and draining situations

And It’s Not Just A Productivity Killer, It’s An Actual Killer

According to entrepreneur and author Trevor Blake, neuroscientists have learned to measure brain activity when faced with various stimuli, including a truckload of complaining — and the results are not good.

“The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,” Blake says. “So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”

Even worse, being exposed to too much complaining can actually destroy neurons in the brain’s hippocampus — the part of your brain required for problem-solving.

In other words: chronic complaining can actually make you dumber not just annoyed or annoying.

So What Do You Do?

When surrounded by grumblers, malcontents, and loud mouths, it can be super tempting to give up and agree with the complainers just to get them to shut up and leave you alone.

It’s been said that, “Bad company ruins good morals” — and, where chronic complaining is involved, agreeing simply to get them to shut up could actually lead to career suicide.

Instead of agreeing with the complainer — and potentially getting lumped in with the complainers — you’re better off…

  • Carefully acknowledging complaints with simple, but noncommittal phrases (eg, “Interesting.”)
  • Politely suggesting they talk with the person or people who can do something about the situation (presuming that person is not you)
  • If you feel like you’ve been put in a compromising position, let them know you’re not comfortable with this conversation and redirect again to their manager or chain of command

Everyone Has A Story; Let Me Complain About Mine

Have you ever been in a tough spot because of complainers? If so, what did you do?

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