Stillwater insurance agent Lisa Smith used to work with a man who constantly complained — about everything. He'd start in every morning with how his commute stunk, Smith said, then gripe that his feet or back hurt, and moan before and after every phone call he received.
“The negativity just came off him in waves and sent stress right into me and the rest of us,” Smith said. She used to tense up, grit her teeth and even call in sick to avoid dealing with him, she said.
Amber Dixon said she's seen similar singular personalities negatively affect the productivity and customer service of whole departments at Oklahoma City Abstract & Title Co.
“Many times people don't realize why, or that they're unhappy or dreading work,” said Dixon, president. “But when the complainer is removed from the equation, it's like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.”
The author of a new business book advocates ways for workers to rewire their brains against complaining, while an Oklahoma City chief executive is sponsoring $500 monthly drawings to encourage his employees to monitor and curtail it.
“Fascinating new research proves the brain can't distinguish fact from fiction, so if you keep hearing negative messages, your workplace behavior will change to fit these new perceptions,” said Trevor Blake, serial entrepreneur and Seattle-based author of “Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life.”
Blake points to Harvard University studies that found the same brain activity between subjects who performed a five-finger piano exercise two hours daily for a week and those who, over the same period, sat on their hands and only imagined playing the piece. Meanwhile, studies at Stanford University, he said, show stresses can cause the same brain cell death as actual negative experiences, he said.
“The research,” Blake said, “gives us hope there are ways to filter out and take more control over negative energy to rewire our brains.”
Among his favorite techniques is envisioning an invisible shield. The late Spanish golfer Seve Gallesteros used the mental trick when playing against beloved American Jack Nicklaus on U.S. courses packed with Nicklaus fans, Blake said. “Seve used to imagine a clear bell jar would come down from the sky to cover and protect him,” he said.
Oklahoma City human resources expert Gayla Sherry's preferred tactic is asking complaining employees for their suggestions or solutions. “It's amazingly disarming.”
She suggests managers view complaining as a performance issue and deal with it by clarifying expectations, rewarding improvements and, if improvements don't occur, taking disciplinary action.
Meanwhile, Tom Pace, CEO of PaceButler Corp. that buys and exports cellphones worldwide, has pledged to enter any of his 75 employees, who go at least five consecutive days without complaining, gossiping or lying, in a monthly drawing for $500. So far, only 11 are in the July drawing — and Pace himself only Monday reached the 10-day personal goal he's sought since December, when he read “A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted” by Will Bowen.
“It's so freeing,” Pace said. “My energy level and self worth are so much better.”
His “3 Point Commitment” campaign helps employees work together to focus on getting things done, he said. “Complaining,” he said, “doesn't move you toward solutions.”
Wearing rubber sports wristbands as visual cues, employees who fall off their complaint-free and other goals, simply move the bands to their other wrists and start over, Pace said.
Mike Bell, co-owner of an Edmond accounting firm, soon plans to introduce the challenge to his 14-member staff.
“We have a very positive office to begin with,” Bell said. “But it's got to have a positive impact on just the way we see life and others around us.”
At a glance
Tips for managing complainers