Having the courage to speak up within a team without fear of social repercussion is a symptom of a higher level of psychological safety. Depending on the context of the complaint it might, in fact, be evidence of Challenger Safety which is the top level of Dr. Timothy R. Clark’s 4 Stages of Psychological Safety model , and is a prerequisite for unleashing the creativity of a team.

Sounds good, right?

But what should we do when one person’s raising of concerns becomes chronic? Left unchecked, such behavior could alienate the individual from the rest of the team as others within the team might not want to have someone bringing them down. If allowed to fester, the individual’s contributions will be criticized or rejected based on how they are perceived by others in the team. Even worse, their regular ranting could become contagious and infect other team members which will bring down the team’s overall morale and productivity.

It would be tempting to jump in and confront the team member, but before directly intervening, seek first to better understand what is going on. Consider their most recent set of complaints and ask yourself the following questions.

  • Are their concerns legitimate or are they unfounded?
  • Are the concerns they are raising too general or are they very specific?
  • Assuming the concerns are both legitimate and specific, has the individual attempted to address them constructively and what has the response to those actions been?
  • What are they seeing which you are not?

Once you have gathered this information, look at it objectively, and if you find yourself unable to do so, invite a trusted peer, in confidence, to review the evidence and provide their opinion.

Is your team member a chronic complainer or are they a cursed Cassandra ? There are many examples of those unfortunate few who tried to make the many sit up and pay attention only to be persecuted for their efforts and do YOU want to be on the wrong side of history?

Intervene too soon and you will send the message to the individual and the rest of the team that you can’t handle the truth. The next time they feel concerned about something, they will stay silent as they no longer feel safe.

But once you are convinced that intervention is needed, don’t delay. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries wrote an article for HBR providing guidance on how to do so once you know it is warranted.

Work with a diverse group of people long enough and someone is guaranteed to complain. This is natural human behavior and we want to encourage the healthy expression of concerns, especially if addressing these concerns directly could help to create a better outcome for our customers, our company or society in general.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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