Dear Design Martyrs: The One About the Complaining Co-worker

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“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs,

I work with a complainer. They always find something wrong with EVERYTHING. No matter how good something might be, they still find something to criticize and complain about. I mentioned that this can be demoralizing to our colleagues (we are on the same level of seniority in our office), and they responded that “venting was healthy.” I disagree; I find the behavior problematic. Other than going to HR (which I don’t want to do, as I don’t want to seem like a complainer myself), what are my options to try and change this behavior in my colleague? 

—Concerned in Colorado

Dear Concerned,

Some people have a hard time holding themselves accountable when things in their lives “go wrong.” They blame others for their maladies or lack of success. Often, when that happens, those very same people like to complain about it. They complain a lot.

Are you someone who complains a lot? Deep down, you know if you’re a complainer. The conundrum of complaining is twofold. First, all you’re really doing when you complain is releasing your negative energy to relieve your discomfort. And in the process, you spread your own toxins onto other people. Complaining is contagious—if we’re not happy, we don’t want anyone else to be happy, either.

My former boss at Sterling Brands, Simon Williams, once told me that he believed that there are only two kinds of people in the world—Generators and Drains. Generators tend to be leaders. They’re the people who come into a room and generate good energy. Generators almost always have something positive to say. Generators tend to feel that there’s always an opportunity to discover. Generators try to see something worthwhile in every lesson. Being a Generator doesn’t mean that you’re delusional or stupidly happy. Being a Generator simply means you are someone who almost always wants to make things better.

The Drains of the world are the people that—no matter what the circumstances, even if it’s the most amazing thing in the world—must always point out the negative. They may be in the best restaurant on the planet, having the best meal of their life, but feel compelled to complain that the temperature of the room is too high. Or the white wine isn’t cold enough. Or the environment is too noisy. 

We all know people like this. They suck the energy, enjoyment, and optimism out of a room, no matter what. They’re the constantly critical ones; they’re the ones for whom nothing is ever good enough. And sadly, they’re the ones intentionally or not, bringing everybody else down with them.

Why are some people like this? It might have to do with their upbringing. When parents are overly critical, their children internalize that voice and become accustomed to feeling that this is the only way to relate to the world. The people who complain the most, the ones that find the most faults with the world, are the people who tend to feel bad about themselves. I don’t think that people consciously want to be a drain. Their way of draining tends to be a way that they are trying very, very hard to protect themselves from others seeing their own shortcomings. Being a Drain might be the only way they know how to relate to the world!

These tendencies seem to be involuntary, and they represent how we show up in the world. They also seem to correlate with how we see the notion of fault and responsibility: Generators tend to take responsibility and be proactive in improving things; Drains tend to blame someone else and don’t seem to want to do anything other than complain. 

Sadly, this behavior can only be self-managed! You can’t turn a person into someone they don’t want to be. We can only change ourselves. 

Overcoming being a Drain can be only be done by the person being the Drain. If anyone reading this thinks they might be a Drain, try and become accountable for your behavior. Count how many times you complain over the course of several days. If you believe that the number of times you find yourself complaining is excessive, make an active effort to stop. Just stop. If you can’t, consider talking to a therapist about why you have this pessimistic view of the world.

Thankfully, we all know Generators. Generators can’t help but generate good energy, and they often attempt to increase positivity in any scenario. Watch what they do. The next time you feel yourself wanting to complain about a situation you’re faced with, instead try to make it better or find something positive about it. Chances are, everyone knows it’s not perfect; this is your chance to take the high road and make things better for everyone, including yourself.

And since your question is fundamentally about changing someone else’s behavior, let me be clear—you can’t. No one changes unless they want to. My only suggestion would be to leave a copy of this article on your colleague’s desk. Perhaps they will recognize themselves and see that there are other ways of operating in the world. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope so.

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