How To Handle A Colleague Who Complains About Problems—That She Created

We’ve all been there: you’re listening to a colleague complain about a problem at work, but you feel like you have to bite your tongue. Why? Because she’s the one who created the problem in the first place.

By Ella Carroll-Smith3 min read
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You know that friend who claims to “hate” drama, but then immediately turns around and starts stirring the pot? Imagine that same friend, but in an office environment. Dealing with problematic colleagues can be trickier than dealing with problematic friends because you need to maintain a professional and working relationship with your co-workers at all times. You can’t be as blunt and honest with them as you can be with your best gal pals, so you have to tread lightly. 

That doesn’t mean you need to avoid conflict entirely at work or lie to your co-workers. There are ways to navigate difficult situations in the workplace where you can still stay true to your values. Every situation is different, of course, and requires nuance. This is especially true when your boss is the colleague you’re having issues with. Dealing with an overly negative or lying boss is a classic symptom of a toxic workplace and there are only so many things you can do in those instances. 

The situation is slightly easier to navigate when you’re dealing with a peer at work and not a superior, but it’s still possible to have an honest conversation with your boss about how you’re feeling. Here are some tips to help you be professional, yet effective:

Be Honest

When someone is venting, it’s natural to want to make them feel better, but you can allow someone to be heard without giving up your own principles. Maybe your colleague is complaining about a fellow team member who she claims dropped the ball on a recent project, but you know that your colleague is actually the one who messed up. Don’t pretend to agree with her simply for the sake of camaraderie. Lying will only feed into her inner monologue that everything is happening to her instead of because of her. 

Just because you’re being honest doesn’t mean you have to be rude.

Just because you’re being honest, however, doesn’t mean you have to be rude. Acknowledge what your colleague is saying, then kindly offer an alternative point of view on the matter. You could say something like: “I can understand how it might seem that way to you, but try to look at it from so-and-so’s perspective” or “I don’t quite see it that way, have you thought about x, y, or z?” If your co-worker then tries to get confrontational with you, don’t give in. Remind her that you’re only trying to help and kindly urge her to find a way to resolve the situation rather than exacerbate it. You all have to work together at the end of the day, so it’s best to try and find a way to get along.

Avoid the Negativity

Try not to let your colleague’s negativity bring you down. Just as in other areas of life, the old saying “misery loves company” is true in the workplace. Complaining can sometimes build bonds between co-workers, but it’s often more likely to build resentment. It’s one thing to complain about the lackluster coffee in the breakroom and another to gossip about someone and spread rumors. 

When you’re dealing with a colleague who’s constantly complaining, it’s hard not to let their negativity bring you down as well. This is especially true when you’ve tried to offer advice, but nothing you say seems to help make things better. Remember that you need to prioritize your own work and mental health in this situation. It’s sort of like on an airplane when you need to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help anyone else. 

If you’re letting your colleague’s negativity overwhelm you, then it will be impossible for you to see the situation clearly, so do what you need to do in order to stay positive. You could take a mental health day, talk to a neutral third-party about things (like a friend outside of work or your boyfriend), or simply tell your colleague that you can’t discuss her complaints anymore, which brings me to my final point…

Know When To Stop Giving Advice 

You can’t help someone who doesn’t ultimately want to help herself, so if it feels like you’ve hit a wall and your colleague simply refuses to heed any of your advice, then stop giving it. It’s possible that this person simply enjoys the drama and has no intention of trying to fix things, in which case you’re just wasting your time. A relationship is a two-way street and if your colleague is refusing to meet you halfway, then it’s not worth your time and effort to try and help her. 

You can’t help someone who doesn’t ultimately want to help herself.

Since this is someone you work with, then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to simply cut her out of your life, especially if the two of you are on the same team or work closely together on a lot of projects. You can continue to be cordial, but be quick to change the subject when she starts complaining. Or, you could be honest and simply say, “Look, I’ve given you my opinion and offered some advice, but it seems like I’m not helping, so let’s move on.” 

Instead of getting frustrated that your colleague refuses to take responsibility for her actions or heed your advice, and allowing that anger to undermine your entire relationship, consider this as an opportunity to draw a healthy boundary. Boundaries are important in all areas of your life, especially at work. The key word here is “healthy.” Drawing a boundary is a form of honesty, and as I said earlier – there’s no need to be rude for the sake of being honest. Once you’ve let your colleague know you’re not going to keep listening to her rant about issues she refuses to resolve, try to change the subject. 

Bring up another project you’re working on together or maybe keep it light-hearted! Ask her to go for a walk or get a cup of coffee. Something that will help you both clear your minds and get out of the environment that’s bringing you down. Try to steer the conversation away from work entirely and get to know your co-worker as a human. If you’re able to establish a connection with her outside of the workplace, then she might be more likely to heed your advice in the future. 

Closing Thoughts

It can be tricky to navigate situations in the workplace that require honest criticisms of your colleagues. But remember that the type of criticism you’re aiming for should always be constructive, even when you’re frustrated. Hopefully these tips will help you preserve your professional relationships along with your own mental health! 

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