Karin’s Leadership Articles

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

by | Sep 30, 2015 | By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning, Employee Engagement & Energy, Results & Execution |

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.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. David Oddis

    Nice blog Karin. Nice suggestions also. It’s unfortunate when the drama or as you put it “Looney tunes” creeps into projects. The amount of spinning caused, paired with the amount of wasted time and effort all translate into higher project costs. However, I think one of the larger impacts falls on the deflation that happens to the rest of the team. You put it nicely when you say “sucks the life-force out of your team”. Unresolved it can happen time and time again preventing teams from reaching peak performance. On a side note: I have been researching through feedback from IT industry professionals the trends of people known to fall into this category and there have been some interesting theories and suggestions that tie back to capability and competence and how the drama, while naturally drawing attention to them, is actually covering that. It’s an interesting topic nonetheless and one worth continuing to bring attention to.

    • Karin Hurt

      David, Thanks so much for your insights. I’d love to talk more abour you research. Call me! Namaste.

  2. LaRae Quy

    We all have Barbara’s on our teams and workplaces. Firing them rarely helps eliminate a problem other than chronic staff shortages…unfortunately, reality TV shows abound in drama queen behavior. Just look at The Kardashians…a scourage on American culture if there ever was one…

    Diligence in the hiring process can expose many of these more undesirable personality traits. As talented as a Barbara may be, they are rarely worth the effort it takes to deal with all ltheir drama.

    Drama queens need an audience. I refuse to give them the attention they crave and never join the “pity me” party that is playing in their head.

    I also agree that if you give them a project where their natural talents show through, you’ve helped them fill that need for attention and pity—instead, you’ve empowered them…for as long as it lasts.

    Great topic, Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      LaRae, Thanks so much for your experience and insights. You raise such an important point about the hiring process… that’s such a vital time where people hiring at the entry levels often go to fast… and not screen for such things. It pays in the long run.

  3. James McKey

    First off, great post. I’ve got a former colleague who admitted one day that he realizes he actually likes a bit of drama at work and subconsciously didn’t necessarily discourage these issues coming up. But he knew it wasn’t really what was best for the team when it happened on a recurring basis. I’ll be forwarding this on to him.

    Personally, I’ve learned a lot about Systems Theory approach to stuff like this from my parents and they have said (and demonstrated) that altering this behavior often goes easiest when the whole system is trying to affect change on that one squeaky wheel. Often the system doesn’t realize it enables and even expects or wants this behavior on some level because it has become part of the norm. There’s tension in the room waiting for this person to file their complaint and then everyone relaxes when they finally speak up. The complainer can feel that pre-complaint tension too.

    I think leaders could be transparent with the #1-4 steps above to key influencers in the group so that they can help and also be encouraging/facilitating to the change.

    Also, I love the pic you chose for this one 🙂

    • Karin Hurt

      James, all these insiths are FANTASTIC! You raise wise posts in your systems approach, worthy of a post itself 😉

  4. Steve Borek

    Behind every complaint is a request. I ask clients to become curious about what their challenging team member is requesting.

    • David Oddis

      Steve, Great point of view.

      • Karin Hurt


  5. Alan Allard

    Karine, that’s really good advice for a very tough problem. I also encourage my clients to view challenging behavior from others as opportunities to grow in their emotional and social intelligence. How do we improve our ability to listen, to empathize or to influence someone else if we’re not being challenged to go beyond what we think we can handle? With that said, I agree with your last point. The chronic complainer needs to be dealt with and if they won’t change, the only solution is to fire them.

    • Karin Hurt

      Alan. Love it! Thank you!

  6. Bonnie Mann

    I tend to think that behind every complaint is a wish. Asking the employee what the situation would like like if the problem is solved. Which hopefully takes their focus off the problem and puts it looking at a solution.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bonnie, we have surely missed you at LGL. So glad you’re back. Just awesome advice. Thank you. Namaste.

  7. Terri Klass

    I have certainly worked with my share of drama queens like Barbara. I recently partnered with someone who always made a mountain out of a mole hill. She had no perspective and everything was a big problem if things didn’t go her way. What I try to do is diffuse the situation by remaining calm and opening up the dialogue in a focused way. Never let the Barbara’s go off on tangents. That will surely cause more dysfunction. Eventually this person resigned but I never let her get the best of me.

    Thanks Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, Thanks so much! Great points. Keeping clam and staying in control of the conversation. Excellent advice.

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