How do I deal with a whiny employee?

I’m a manager at a company, and one of my employees is a big complainer. It’s gotten to where his complaining is hurting morale for the entire team of employees I manage. I’d like to tell this employee to stop complaining, but these days that can be risky. I feel pressure from this employee to regularly hear him out – and to especially validate his feelings. But I’m not his therapist. What should I do?

I’ve heard a lot of managers these days say that we’re living in interesting times, and I get what they mean. Culture is always changing, but it usually happens much more slowly than it’s been happening recently. Managers’ experiences moving up the ranks until a few years ago don’t match the expectations of junior employees moving up the ranks now. In some cases, it’s not even close.

According to many managers I’ve talked to, employees these days (especially younger ones) expect their feelings to matter at work a lot more than they used to. More than before, people don’t want to hide their emotions in the workplace. They expect to voice their concerns and be heard. They want to bring their entire, authentic selves to their jobs, and if that means complaining openly if things don’t go their way – and especially if they experience stress, anxiety, or overwhelm – then complaining openly is what they feel they have the right (if not obligation) to do.

This can be tough for a lot of managers these days to deal with, given that they themselves weren’t offered the same luxury as they moved up in their careers. Openly voicing negative feelings wasn’t how they were taught to manage stress. They were taught to endure.

When I think on the times I was miserable at work but had no recourse, I feel frustrated all over again. In so many instances, my managers could have heard me out and made some basic decisions to improve things – not just for me but for everyone else. But the onus was on me to put up with their bad situations, not on them to step up. I was the target of judgment because I spoke out, whereas their mismanagement was allowed to persist, breeding toxic work environments.

But this doesn’t mean every complaint is worthy. Some amazing managers who do everything right still get criticized by employees who are ill-equipped to manage heavy workloads, who need more hand holding than they should, or who are simply a poor fit for the job. And then there are those employees who simply cannot manage stress. Any amount of stress. Maybe they’ve always had things too easy. Maybe they’ve always had things too hard. Whatever the reason, while most people can tackle the challenge of a stressful career, these folks crumble.

What I’m getting at is that there’s no way to know what the real problem is unless you understand it. There’s no way to understand it unless you gather information. And you can’t gather information if you don’t listen. So, if one of your employees is a big complainer, listen to their complaint so you can understand the problem.

But if you don’t make a distinction between understanding and enabling, then you could set your workplace up to be toxic.

Understanding to be informed, so you can make the right decisions, is different from understanding to validate. Not all complaints are justified. Not all are expressed professionally or maturely either, even if they are justified. Emotional outbursts among teammates can be damaging to a workplace environment, even if the underlying emotion is perfectly understandable. There’s a time, place, and way to offer critical feedback so it doesn’t harm the integrity of the team.

Validating damaging outbursts or inappropriate expressions of even justified stress could generate a toxic workplace. It’s a classic case of norm reinforcement: reassuring a poorly behaving employee could essentially be rewarding them, signaling to them that their behavior is acceptable. This sets the workplace up for more disruptive behavior.

Complaints without evidence to back them up are inappropriate. Complaints expressed in a disruptive way are inappropriate. Bad feelings don’t automatically mean something is wrong with one’s work environment. But they also don’t automatically mean your employee is a whiner.

Listen to your employee to understand where they’re coming from. Evaluate the validity of their complaint by looking at the evidence (don’t jump to conclusions just because you aren’t comfortable with what you hear). Sit on what you’ve heard, so you have time to process the information. Then decide whether the complaint has merit or if your employee may have other issues going on.

A lot of managers like to play armchair psychology. Maybe that’s fun. Just know that the more information you have, the better equipped you’ll be to make the right choices. And if your style of understanding validates inappropriate behavior, then you could be setting yourself up for more problems. It’s up to you to find the sweet spot.