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Q: My school is full of chronic complainers, and it’s starting to get to me. I’m the principal, and all the gripes eventually make their way to me, usually secondhand. I even hear complaints about all the complaining! I try to set the tone — I’m positive and friendly, I clearly state our values, I listen to criticism, and I give frequent feedback. It doesn’t make a dent in the constant grumbling, and I’m fried. What can I do to change this?

A: Although I’m sure you feel the responsibility is 100% yours, you can’t do this alone. You say you hear the complaints secondhand. That doesn’t surprise me. It can be intimidating to approach the principal directly. In every school, there are a few people who seem to know everything because people choose to confide in them. That person could be the registrar, or a counselor, or a financial specialist, or anyone who tends to be a nonjudgmental, trustworthy, empathetic listener. I’m guessing these people are relaying the messages to you.

The Harvard Business Review has a name for their role: toxic handlers. Toxic handlers — who tend to be competent, positive additions to the community — “absorb and soften the emotional pain in an organization.” They shoulder their colleagues’ sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger. When it gets to be too much, they can feel enormous stress. But, by identifying and training your toxic handlers, you can accomplish two tasks at once. You can tamp down the complaining and protect these valuable employees from burnout.

So spend some time identifying your toxic handlers. Once you’ve figured that out, talk to them. Explain that you appreciate their role as eyes and ears on the ground and that you’d like to use their skills to change the tone in the building. Acknowledge that they often are put in difficult situations and that you’d like to help them.

And then give them some tools. Encourage the toxic handlers to do the following:

  • Ask the complainer what their goals are.
  • Help the complainer distinguish between a mole hill problem and a mountain problem.
  • Ask the complainer how they intend to solve the problem, especially if you’ve heard the same complaint multiple times.
  • Share that while you care, it can be draining and distracting to absorb their pain all the time.
  • Explain that while you can listen, you aren’t a decision maker. Who do they intend to talk to in a constructive way to advocate for change?
  • Stay positive and calm and don’t get bogged down in the grumbling.
  • Don’t egg on the complainer or add details that would make them angrier or more irritated.

As principal, pay attention to the complaints. Are there trends? Are people identifying one person in particular as a problem or a bully? By bully, I mean someone who strips others of their dignity and intends to wound, not someone who excludes a colleague from happy hour. In situations that involve abuse, especially abuse of power, you’ll need to tackle the problem directly and firmly.

But, it may not rise to that level. People may be frustrated with someone’s leadership style or tendency to be rude. In those cases, meet with the identified staff members. Try to get a sense of what’s driving them. Are they feeling disempowered? Upset that other staff members don’t like them? Craving validation? Reeling from a problem in their personal life? Figure out whether you can soften their approach by addressing the underlying issue. Maybe they need more frequent feedback, or some time off, or a leadership role. Or they may simply need to be told to cut it out.

If someone approaches you directly with a complaint, challenge them to be critical thinkers. Teach them how to complain constructively. Ask, what do you think you can do about that problem? What do you think I can do? If we fix that one problem, will we inadvertently create a new one? Be a good listener, share your goals for the school, ask how you can be supportive, and request that they help you build morale. When people feel heard, they’re less antagonistic.

The complaints may not be about any people in particular. They can be about anything: unfriendliness among staff, feeling like a clock puncher, unsettling programmatic changes, or dissatisfaction with professional development opportunities. In those cases, there may be some tangible solutions. If there aren’t, communicate to your staff as a whole that you hear them and take their concerns seriously. Be honest about your plans and limitations. People like predictability and structure. Even if they don’t agree with your decisions, they’ll be more likely to accept them if you’re transparent and acknowledge their misgivings.

You didn’t sign up to be a therapist, but it may help to adopt some counseling techniques. Be a reflective listener. Ask open-ended questions. Encourage staff to be solution-oriented. Help them distinguish big problems from little problems. Encourage your toxic handlers to practice self-care and set good boundaries.

And then state your expectations as principal. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone, but you can make it clear that you won’t tolerate chronic complaining.

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