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Energy sappers - there's one in every office.

Sometimes they seem like the "Typhoid Mary" of personal disasters. We can discern their presence because after they have left us we feel negative and disconcerted. And, to make matters worse, they seem to have been evenly distributed in the population--all of us have at least one somewhere! How do we handle these people, whom Barbara Lau calls "chaindumpers" whose glass always seems half-empty? Read on to gain some ideas about how to deflect the negative vibrations they seem to spread everywhere.

In previous articles for Management Quarterly, I have discussed various things that affect our energy levels. Those regular readers among you have learned about taking short "joy breaks" to recharge your energy, about working according to your most creative and comfortable work style, and about making our office an invigorating and pleasant setting in which to work.

The circumstances that drain our energy are often less easily controlled--such as doing tiresome paperwork that must routinely be done. However, one of the least obvious but most manageable energy drainers is a "chaindumpers". That's my book's name for people who chronically dump their problems and daily complaints into the laps of everyone willing to listen. Chaindumpers feel that the world is against them, that "you just can't get ahead no matter how hard you try." And worst of all, they are rarely receptive to advice or possible solutions. Thus they leave you carrying the weight of their "unsolvable" problems without the satisfaction of having helped them.

If you notice yourself feeling pessimistic, irritated, or fatigued after most encounters with a certain person, then you have one on your hands, too. In fact, virtually every office and extended family has one.

The most damaging aspect of working with a chaindumper is that the the complainer's pessimistic outlook does not remain with him or her; it spreads like wild fire down the hall, around the coffee break room, into the conference room, and even home with the co-workers.

For example, my book cites one company where employee morale and motivation had dramatically dropped. My co-author and business consultant, McGee-Cooper, was called in to analyze and solve the problem. She observed the pattern of one mid-level manager (we'll call him Greg) who came and left work grumbling. Each morning he greeted the receptionist with a list problems he had had with his kids, his car, and the traffic. Next he told his sad tale to two associates at the coffee station. Except this time the traffic jam lasted five minutes longer and his car repairs were going to cost more money, PLUS he claimed that the poor ability of American laborers was one reason his own company was losing money.

During the lunch hour Greg replayed his tape of woes to half a dozen co-workers, who were so influenced by his gloom and doom attitude that they jumped in with their own horror stories about financial worries, work problems, and family troubles. That attitude followed them into the board room, where their efforts to brainstorm on fresh ways to market their services were thwarted by their low energy and pessimistic outlook.

After studying this phenomenon again and again at different companies, McGee-Cooper concludes that a chaindumper is as contagiuos as the flu. And unless there are highly positive, motivated employees to counteract their influence, chaindumpers can do a world of harm to office morale and productivity.

Chaindumpers can further harm an office by encouraging their co-workers to rescue them. For example, at least once a week Greg would get some sympathetic listener to pick up part of his work load. Of course it was always someone else's fault that he was behind, because chaindumpers view themselves as chronic victims. The outcome usually was that the rescuers would ultimately feel overloaded, exhausted, and resentful that they were overloaded with someone else's work. Then they would infect the office with their own complaints of feeling overwhelmed, put-upon, and so forth.

And so the cycle spreads. By rescuing chaindumpers, you are letting them avoid learning how to do something they need to do themselves. By rescuing them from the results of their behavior you are inviting them to repeat their mistakes (and pleas for help) over and over.

Even if you can't change a chaindumper's outlook, you can limit its effect on you. Here are some tips for curtailing the chaindumpers in your life.

1) When chaindumpers begin unloading their problems in your lap, politely interrupt them. Explain that you are sorry they are having a rough day, but that hearing their problems make you so distracted and upset that you can't concentrate on your work. Then tell them that you will be open to hear them during lunch, after work, or perhaps that weekend. Also talk to your co-workers about responding in similar ways to the person. (Since most chaindumpers crave immediate gratification from a listener, few of them will corner you later that day.)

2) When you are willing to listen to the complainer, explain that you need to have the satisfaction of trying to help him or her find a solution to their problems. Then have them agree to talking about their hardships for only three to five minutes. The rest of the conversation must be devoted to finding solutions or talking about something positive in their lives.

3) Similarly, when having a coffee or lunch break with friends, make a rule for BOTH yourself and them that you will spend only a small portion of your time together complaining. The rest of your time together must be spent on encouraging, positive topics. In fact, one office where McGee-Cooper served as a consultant made the following pact in its break room:

Only one day a week is "grumble day". The rest of the week, complaints and sour attitudes are banned from the room.

4) Since there are times when all of us feel overburdened and victimized, it can help to really ventilate full force. Exaggerate, moan, groan, be dramatic and self-pitying. Exaggerate your feelings, such as, "I'll never, never sell another contract," "Nothing ever goes right," "I'm so far behind that I'll have to stay up and drink coffee for hours to catch up!" Even exaggerate a worst case scenario. Your boss gets furious about a late report and fires you. Your spouse gets so angry that he or she divorces you. Your children run away from home, your house is repossessed, and so forth. These wild exaggerations can result in laughter, and help put our real problems into perspective. Follow up our dramatic outpouring with a list of at least ten things you are thankful for.

5) Make a point of surrounding yourself with motivating, energizing people. We all know people who inspire us with their accomplishments, aspirations, or innovating thinking. At least once a week, have a breakfast, lunch or dinner date with them. Or join something--a bowling, walking, or book discussion group--that is filled with fun-loving, positive people.

6) While I advise minimizing your contact with chaindumpers, sometimes it is impossible to avoid them. If you know you will have to endure such an encounter, follow it up with an energy-gaining experience. Take a walk with an energizing person, drive the scenic route home from work, treat your kids to an ice cream soda or a romp in the park, or read an inspiring poem or essay.

Barbar Lau is a resident of Austin, Texas and a graduate of the University of Texas, with a bachelor's degree in journalism and English. She has worked as a freelance writer and as an employee in cooperative communications. Her work has been published in Family Circle, Working Woman and Savvy and focuses primarily upon business and health issues.
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Title Annotation:chronic complainers
Author:Lau, Barbara
Publication:Management Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1991
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