Coaching Whiners

by Steven M. Smith · 7 comments

Ban whining. It’s destructive communication inside organizations.

Why is whining destructive? How can a whiny complaint be transformed into a constructive, actionable proposal?

You ask Anthony, who reports to you, “How are things going?”

Anthony unloads on you like a dump truck unloading fertilizer, “I’m sick and tired of the mandatory meetings that your management is forcing me to attend. Management schedules these meetings at the last minute, which forces me to reschedule conflicting appointments and meetings. I’m losing credibility. And I’m pissed off about the poor organization of the mandatory meetings. I sit and listen to things that don’t matter to me. Attending these meetings wastes my time. Will this stupidity ever stop?”

Please, whatever you do, don’t say, “I’ll see what I can do about the problem.”

Utter those words and you take ownership of the problem. Anthony will rightly expect that you will do something about his problem. You are setting both Anthony and yourself up for disappointment.

When you accept responsibility for the complaint embedded in the whining, you add to your own burden; you make communication indirect; and you fail to train your people effectively.

Step back. Do you know what will satisfy Anthony? You can’t. I haven’t given you enough information to know. If you think you already know the problem and its solution, then you are assuming too much.

By unloading on you, Anthony may already be satisfied. Ask him, “What would you like me to do?”

You may be surprised to hear Anthony say, “Nothing. I know your management. That’s the way they do business. You can’t do anything.”

But if Anthony says, “I want you to talk with your management about the problem.”

Start training Anthony by replying, “Tell me the problem.”

“I thought I already told you the problem.” says Anthony.

“No. I heard a lot of things, but I didn’t hear a clear problem statement.”

Antony looks down at your desk as he ponders your statement.

“Uh…” sputters out of his mouth. “Uh… Scheduling mandatory meetings at the last minute isn’t fair?”

You ask, “What’s the impact on you of scheduling meetings at the last minute.”

“I have to reschedule other meetings and appointments at the last minute.” answers Anthony.

You ask, “What’s the impact of these scheduling changes to the business?”

“Some of the meetings I have to reschedule are with clients and some of them don’t like last minute changes.” replies Anthony.

You verify the problem by saying, “So I gather the problem is that last minute mandatory meetings are hurting relationships with our clients.” And you ask, “Is that close?”

Anthony looks you in the eye and says, “I know where you are going… That definition is close enough.”

Continue coaching by asking, “What do you recommend that my management do?”

Anthony continues looking you in the eyes as he replies, “I realize your management will need a few emergency meetings so I recommend that 90% of all mandatory meetings be scheduled at least one week in advance.”

“Sounds good. Email me the complaint and recommendation so I can forward it to my management?”

“My name will be on the message?” asks Anthony.

“Yes, of course, it’s your problem. Right?”

“Let me think about it. I’ll get back to you.”

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

James Bach December 15, 2009 at 10:53 pm

I’m surprised that you would call this whining. If I trusted you enough to complain to you about something that bugged me, and you called what I was doing “whining”, you would instantly make an enemy. I would gladly refuse to help you with whatever-the-hell you wanted from me.

What is whining, anyway? Is asking for help whining? Is commiserating with a fellow human whining?

This post sounds a little cold, but I don’t know you to be a cold person, Steve. You care about the people you work with. I understand that you think everyone should help themselves. But in your example, you haven’t made it clear that this person is not already helping himself. And your reply to him sounds disingenuous (I know you don’t mean it that way.) to my ear. For instance, if you were to say this to me:

“No. I heard a lot of things, but I didn’t hear a clear problem statement.”

I would reply, “A clear problem statement? Who am I talking to, an HR robot? or my friend Steve? You heard me rattle off a bunch of things, and you know very well what I’m talking about. YOU’RE IN THOSE SAME MEETINGS.”

Now, if you were to reply something like “James, I hear you are frustrated with this. I know what you’re talking about. So what are you going to do about it?” Then I wouldn’t feel that same “wtf?” reaction. That’s a reasonable way to reply, I would think– unless you actually don’t know what I was talking about, in which case you might reply something like “Okay James, if you want my help, I need to understand what’s going on, so help me understand specifically what’s bugging you, then maybe I’ll have an idea of what you can do about it.”


Steven M. Smith December 16, 2009 at 10:00 am

James, As a friend, I would happily listen to any complaint you would like to share. And I would do my best to support you in the manner you desire.

The article is about a different context where the person hearing the complaint is a manager. I may have done a poor job of setting that context so I can understand how the article comes across as cold to you.

The intent of the article was to share a story about an interaction I had with a manager, Anne Cawley, early in my career. She was in her office, busily working on something. I didn’t work in the same office as she so I saw it as an opportunity to share a complaint. I didn’t have the experience to know that she was drowning in problems and my complaint was causing her to sink even further. She told me to think through the problem before bringing it to her and tell her what I wanted her to do.

Although the advice wasn’t delivered sweetly, it was excellent. I’m thankful for receiving it. I’ve used it to share complaints and provide recommendations to managers. And in the vast majority of cases, I have been appreciated for bringing up the complaint. The managers describe me as “constructive.”

Is it really too much to ask someone to think through the complaint before bringing it forward? I like working with other people to solve problems. That’s the extrovert in me. That person doesn’t have to be my manager. I can work with someone else and bring the resolution to my manager.

Managers are busy and have many problems on their plate. My recommendation is to do your best to provide an actionable complaint. My recommendation to managers is to give employees the same advice Anne Cawley gave me — tell me what you want me to do.

I shared my advice for the other perspective in the article Safer Conversations with Management.

Thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. I value your feedback.


Markus Gärtner December 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Rephrasing what I got from your write-up, I would summarize it with
– avoid “let others work” (LOW) mentality to avoid an Addiction Cycle (your whiner will come back if you help her now)
– as a manager respond congruently

Is my interpretation biased by currently reading through QSM Vol.3 or does it fit your intended message?


Steven M. Smith December 16, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Markus, Yes, the manager gains significantly by responding congruently. And part of that congruence is letting the other person own the problem rather than letting it be transferred.

I hadn’t thought of this situation as an addiction cycle. But there is merit to that idea. Lots of it. The cure for the addiction is to prohibit whining and provide an alternative — complaint with recommendation — that works. The manager softens the short-term pain through coaching the person through the thought process.

Thank you for the feedback. You’ve added a perspective that has nicely reframed the ideas I was trying to share.


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