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.
At a glance
Tips for managing complainers