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Saturday Night Live used to run a skit called “Debbie Downer.” It was a woman, “Debbie” who always found the negative side of everything, and it sucked the enjoyment out of the whole group. Part of what made the skits funny was that everyone knows a “Debbie Downer.” Many organizations have someone like this, and they definitely reduce the motivation, satisfaction, and performance of those whom they influence on a daily basis.

So, how do you deal with a “Debbie Downer” or the chronically negative employee? The first thing to understand is that you are responsible for the culture in your organization. What you allow you condone, so if you allow the unaddressed complaining to occur, then you can count on it growing and festering and infecting others.

If the chronically negative employee is your direct report or you are responsible for their behavior/performance, then you must address this and the longer you wait the more it grows and causes problems.

Here are five things you can do to help reduce the negativity:

1. If you hear someone complaining, ask them into a formal meeting to discuss the issue. Allowing employees to complain to others in the hallways, or breakrooms just allows people to feel that they can “spout off” without being accountable to help find the solution. Asking someone to meet with you shows that you take their complaints seriously and you are concerned with them as people and employees. This is an excellent opportunity to practice the S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling method since it walks you right through the issues and lets them come up with a solution/plan (See #4 below).

2. Be empathetic and use active listening techniques and ask clarifying questions. Many times people who constantly complain do so for attention and wanting to be heard, and haven’t really thought out the problem or looked for solutions, or their problems are things that have no easy answers, or are long-term types of conditions of focus. If it is within your “circle of influence” and you can make changes, let them know, if it is beyond your level of influence, let them know that you will be passing the information up to someone who can attempt to impact the changes. But, don’t just end it there, ask the complainer to give you some suggestions how they would change things and why to pass along with their problem.

3. Make them use critical thinking skills and become actively engaged in the goals of the organization. This helps move them towards becoming an exemplary follower rather than an “alienated,” “passive,” “pragmatist” or “conformist” follower. Be empathetic to how they feel without validating their issues, especially if you think their perception is incorrect, remember, it is their perception that it is a problem. Show them that you appreciate them bringing up issues and problems from their perspective, but don’t try to just cheer people up, just so everyone is “happy.” Sometimes issues are serious and need to be considered seriously.

4. Create a culture of: “If you bring me a problem, bring me a solution.” When you meet with the chronic complainer, frequently they just want to “put the monkey on your back,” by telling you the problem and seeing what you do. Don’t fall for that as the leader! Create some accountability, use goal-setting, or problem-solving by asking the employee to come up with a solution for their problem. Then, tell them that you will meet with them again (in a reasonable amount of time) to see what proposed solutions they have come up with. Be sure to follow-up and schedule another meeting to look at the proposed solutions. If it is a good solution to the problem, consider using it and showing the employee that they were successful and helped move themselves, the team and/or the entire organization forward. Give them credit, and if possible some type of reward. This will help motivate them to not just complain about a problem in the future, but to find a solution (hopefully before they complain again.)

5. Change their paradigm/perspective. Changing perception or paradigms requires providing new information or presenting old information in a new way. If the constant complainer is held accountable to making the changes and proposing the solutions, they are forced (along with your help in giving them new information and perspectives) to consider other perspectives and paradigms. Instead of just complaining about the problem, if they know they will be held accountable to helping solve their perceived problems, they will be less likely to complain if they really don’t care about it, or they will be willing to jump in and fix it if it really is important to them. Example: If it is a policy issue, have them propose the policy or wording and be involved in the change process, but also hold them to the organizational standards, so they see what constraints are in place.


Chronic complainers can take up a lot of the supervisor’s time, energy, while creating a lot of unnecessary work, and draw the motivation, satisfaction and performance of an organization down quickly if their complaints go unaddressed or unchecked. However, by creating a culture where people are just as responsible for finding solutions as they are for finding problems, will help reduce the chronic complainer and increase organizational motivation, satisfaction, and performance.


> “Discontent, blaming, complaining, self-pity cannot serve as a foundation for a good future, no matter how much effort you make.” - Eckhart Tolle, Author

> “There are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints. - Rita Dove, Author

About the Author: Dr. Chris Fuzie is the owner of CMF Leadership Consulting and is currently is the Business/HR Manager for a District Attorney’s office in California. Chris is a Leaderologist II and Vice President of the National Leaderology Association (NLA) who holds a Doctor of Education (Ed. D), M.A. and B.A. in Organizational Leadership, and has graduate certificates in Human Resources and Criminal Justice Education. Chris is a developer, trainer, consultant for leadership of public, private, profit, and non-profit organizations since 2010. Chris is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a former National Instructor for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and California P.O.S.T. Courses. Chris is the author of "Because Why... Understanding Behavior in Exigencies." and of "S.C.O.R.E. Performance Counseling: Save the Relationship, Change the Behavior." Chris is honorably retired from the Modesto Police Department after 28 years of public service leading such teams as the Homicide Team, the Hostage Negotiations Team, the Street-Level Drug Team and the School Police Officer Team.


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