How to Stop Drama Queens and Chronic Complainers From Destroying Your Team

I often start my speeches on employee engagement sharing prototypes of various kinds of disengagement. The favorite is always Barbara Boatrocker– “her life feels like a sad country song, every little thing is wrong”– for the appropriate audience I’ll even sing that line ;-). “She’s always stirring the pot. Nothing’s ever quite right when Barbara’s around. She sucks the life-force out of your team.”

Last week, when I asked what we should do about Barbara, the entire audience screamed out in unison, “Fire her.”

I paused.

“How many of you have a Barbara on your team?” Again, almost 100% raised their hands, with lots of knowing laughter.

Clearly, it’s not that easy to fire the “Barbaras” of the world, or this exchange wouldn’t continue to work across all kinds of industries and cultures– even the top-notch law firm I spoke to recently hasn’t cracked the code in their own organization.

5 Ways to Deal With Drama Queens and Chronic Complainers

First let me emphasize the CHRONIC part of the syndrome I’m talking about here. Open dialogue and employees expressing concern is not complaining. Seeking to understand is not resistance. I’m talking about the handful of looney tunes you’ll encounter in your career who consistently make matters worse.

1. Take it Off-Line

What Barbara wants more than anything is an audience. Don’t let her hijack your meeting. Acknowledge her concern and schedule some limited time to understand her concern privately (always good to have someone headed to your office right after). Trust me, your team will thank you.

2. Listen with an Open Mind

Honestly, the reason these Barbaras are so annoying is that they have a point. Some of what they say is true, and you know it. But, you understand the bigger picture and the constraints. I must admit, I’ve gotten some great insights from the Barbaras of the world. Pay attention enough so you don’t miss the good stuff.

3. Give Them a Project

I swear this works. Get them involved in solving the problem, not just talking about it. It’s always easier to tear something down than to build something up. Pull her into the solution-building equation.

4. Watch Your Body Language and Facial Expressions

Looking annoyed and ticked off will only reinforce her opinion that you’re an idiot who doesn’t care. It’s easy to slip into passive aggressive mode here, to roll your eyes, or sigh deeply. Remember that Barbara is annoying, not stupid.

5. Fire Them

Not for complaining, but for the other complicating factors. All that miss-spent energy normally comes at a productivity price. If Steps 1-4 still don’t work (be sure you’ve given them a chance), pay close attention to the side effects and document them.