Working with ‘Crabby’ People

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Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Some of the best advice I have ever received is that with every project (job, company, client) there will always be at least one person who will resist change, who will complain about everything, or who will think that what you are doing is wrong. Don’t avoid them or fight them, instead try to learn from them. They are your best source for discovering risk.

In many cases, taking the approach of learning from the complainers will work for you. On the other hand, I know that there are plenty of companies where standing around the coffee pot and complaining about everything is the norm. When complaining is the culture of an organization, it is easy to get sucked into that negative energy.

So what do you do if you love your work but you are working with a bunch of “crabs”? Here are a few tactics you can try out.

• Stop drinking coffee. Sure, Jane, like that’s going to happen. OK, maybe not stop drinking coffee, but don’t hang out at the coffee pot. Instead, be on the lookout for other people who are avoiding the coffee pot – people who are engaged in their work, who are upbeat. Maybe they are standing there at the coffee pot with you but not saying anything. Maybe they are the people who pick up a cup of coffee and disappear back to their desks. Invite them to another table and start a different type of conversation. As you start an interesting and upbeat conversation, you may find that others want to join you. Just be careful that you don’t start a group complaining about the complainers, so “you yourself do not become a monster.”

• Be a “Polllyanna.” I used to think that being a Pollyanna was kind of wimpy, but then someone pointed out how much good she was able to do. In just a few short weeks, she turned around an entire town with her smile and positive attitude. One of my mentors tells a story about being a bus monitor at a high school. As the students came off the bus in the morning, they would be grouchy and shoving each other around. One day he decided to get silly and started smiling, waving and calling hello to people on the bus before they even stepped out. A few weeks went by and he wasn’t sure that his actions were having much of an effect, so he stopped. That day at least 20 students came up to him and asked if he was OK. They missed his happy greetings. By the end of the school year, as the buses arrived in the morning, the students would shout out a greeting to my mentor. For the most part, the shoving and grumbling had stopped.

• Set boundaries. A number of years ago I took a class called “Critical Conversations.” One of the best tips I took away from that class was to set boundaries with crabby people. The crabs of the world have a tendency to want to vent constantly. You have every right to establish a boundary around their complaining. If they walk into your office and start complaining, look them in the eye and tell them that you simply don’t have time right now to listen but that you do want to hear what they have to say, and then ask them to set up a meeting for the discussion. This does several things. It keeps you from being overwhelmed with their complaining. It lets them know that you really do want to hear what they have to say. It puts a limit on the amount of time you spend listening to their complaining. And it gives you an opportunity to learn from them as well as to support them to find a different perspective.

What approach do you take when you are working with ‘crabby people’? If you have a different approach, it would be great if you would share your ideas so we can all work in a more positive atmosphere. And if you find that the crabbiness at your work is really starting to take a toll on you, then contact me and let’s talk about how you might approach your specific situation and

connect to your power,


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