Leading in a Crisis: What to do when people come to you moaning?

In a crisis people turn to their leaders for inspiration. Some even turn to their leaders to moan and complain. But how will the leader respond, especially when under-pressure?

Here we look at what happens when it goes wrong and the lessons for all leaders in these high-pressure times.

That is the second call today!’ said the team leader in a tone of frustration.   ‘People must think that I have nothing better to do than to listen to feedback, moaning and complaining.  After a deep breath she continued ‘what do I need to do to stop people moaning or giving feedback that is not asked for?’

Imagine this scenario played out with one of your organization’s managers or leaders:  How would you handle this situation?  What advice would you give?  We asked a variety of client leaders as well as coaches within our partner community to share their perspectives.

Here is sample of some of the most insightful (and challenging) advice offered:

Navigate the advice offered in the following categories (left). Please rate the answers based on how relevant they might be in this situation.

‘If people are coming to you with their problems then that is a good thing. It would be worse if they were not. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] If they were sitting stewing at home – moaning behind your back and not to your face’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘The narrative of a team is very important.  When it is revealed to you be thankful.  Managing (or to be more precise shaping) the narrative of your team is important, but you cannot do that unless you know what it is.’


‘Once it was believed that talking about obstacles and setbacks – the negative stuff – was unhelpful – that it demotivated performance. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Today however there is growing research showing that talking about obstacles can actually help to build resilience and grit – especially when the conversation focuses on how obstacles are to be removed’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘There is a lot of talk of psychological safety – the importance of an environment where people can say what they are thinking – without fear of retribution. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] That sounds like a nice idea, but it also includes enabling people to say what they think even when it is not what you want to hear, or you don’t have time to listen. Some managers are more concerned, than others, about how their people feel. All are concerned about performance however and that is what psychological safety is really about’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘We have lost so many informal communication channels from the meeting in the hallway or the coffee-dock to the chatter before a meeting starts… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Managers not being able to get off the phone from a colleague who is talking about their problems is a side effect of this loss’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘In the absence of effective communication, the level of noise will go up.  So, give clarity where it is possible… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …even if that means focusing on the short term – for example helping people to ensure that short term priorities are clear’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

I read a quote that struck me – ‘where there is unbalance, there is unrest’ – it’s Simon Sinek I think.  Well, there is certainly unbalance now…[show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] The unbalance of those colleagues who are being well supported by their managers and those who have been left pretty much to look out for themselves – those who are in parts of the organization that have seen revenues seriously affected, versus those that are ‘safe’ – those who are working in a bedsit versus those who have a home office – those who are at risk from the virus, versus those who are not – team members who have moved here from other countries and have no family support and those who have a support system around them. There is not just one way to experience Covid-19, but many.  Unless you are listening to all of your people you don’t know what their experience is’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘You have to expect a lot of noise and interference in a crisis… you have to accept it for what it is… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] People may be expressing their pent-up frustrations on something at work but the cause may run deeper. Six months into the crisis it is not surprising that people would be frustrated’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Remember silence is not agreement.  Just because there is no negative feedback does not mean that people are happy… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] It is important that people let you know what they think.  Especially, if it is stuff that you would rather not hear’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘For everyone person who tells you what they are really thinking, chances are there are 3-4 who are thinking the same thing but are keeping it to themselves’.


‘If people have challenges then they won’t magically disappear, that is unless they are brought out in to the open – where they can be dealt with’.


‘Sometimes people need to get something off their chest – it is cathartic – going around with it bottled up or repressed won’t help your team’. [yasr_visitor_votes]

I know that Reed Hastings (Netflix) says ‘we are a team, not a family’ but at a time like this genuinely caring about others is what makes us human.  I believe my humanity makes me better able to do my work… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”]…and it also makes me feel good about myself and living my values. Yes, I do care about my colleagues and their families and I believe that the corporation and its shareholders benefit because I care.[/show_more] [yasr_visitor_votes]

Be empathetic. However, that does not mean you take the problems on to yourself. Help the person to step back and listen to their narrative…[ [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”]Let them know that they share the responsibility for dealing with the challenges, if something is not working help find a better way. Let them know that feedback is welcome, but that how it is given matters – negative or destructive feedback is likely to generate the wrong response.’[/show_more] [yasr_visitor_votes]

‘All communication is either ‘a loving response or a cry for help‘ says Tony Robbins, for example somebody who is ‘giving out’ may just be signalling that they are struggling’.


‘You have to listen! Simply listening and showing that you care may be enough. Tell me what you are thinking? How are you feeling about that? What can I do to help? [ [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”]…these are some of the questions I would ask. For a small investment of patience and listening, I believe that the person can leave the conversation unburdened and better able to do their work’.[/show_more] [yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Take Steven Covey’s advice – ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. It is not a matter of whether something is ‘true’ or ‘false’, or whether the person is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it is merely a perspective…. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Being open to a wide diversity of perspectives is vitally important to the manager who wants to have their finger on the pulse of their organization’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Don’t react.  Don’t get defensive.  Don’t take it personally.  That would be my advice… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Of course, that is much easier said than done. We are after all only human!  I often find myself having to take a deep breath and not react’. . [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘I am aware that how I react says as much about what is going on for me at that particular moment.  If my own level of energy is low… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …then talking to somebody who is complaining is draining. I have learned to be aware of my own narrative – try to maintain a non-judgmental stance’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘I know it is very Brenee Brown, but I think it is important to be open, honest and even vulnerable – you don’t have to fix the person’s problem…[ [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …you don’t have to have all the answers – it is ok to say ‘there are days when I feel the same way…’ [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

Don’t jump in to solve people’s problem – offering suggestions and providing direction. I think this is particularly important for us leaders… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] In most cases it is better to help people to clarify the problem and empower them to explore solutions’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘How you respond may well be more important than you think – people are watching – how you behave in a moment of crisis sends a signal – it can inspire confidence and resilience…  [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] How you respond can communicate that the org./team is in safe hands – that people’s concerns and challenges matter, that people matter’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘I don’t have time to be listening to people…’.  OMG!  Here is what I would say: Make time.  As the leader that is your job!  Did you not realize that!!?? [yasr_visitor_votes]

I have little sympathy for this leader…. if indeed they are a leader – because their behaviour certainty does not fit with their title!  [yasr_visitor_votes]

Welcome to leadership… The most rewarding and also the most potentially frustrating job in the world… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] If you don’t want to listen to your people then hand in your leadership badge and go back to being one of the troops.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘As a leader we need to look in the mirror.  Have we played any role in this ‘run to (or moan to) the leader behavior’?  Could there be a secondary gain… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …for the leader in encouraging this behavior as opposed to encouraging team members to solve the problem among themselves’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Here is what I would say: “You’re Fired!!”  It is not very original, but it is very fitting I think! [yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Is there a special kind of leader you need in a crisis – a kind of Winston Churchill type of figure for example?  Well, I am not sure… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] I think if you are going to perform in a crisis you need people to trust you.  Not just that your intent is honorable, but that you the capability to lead them.  The challenge is that to lead in a crisis, your balance in the bank of trust must already be high – it must be built up before the crisis begins’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘What would I say to people who are moaning and complaining is – “take a ticket and get in the queue… It is likely to be a long wait!  If, however you have something constructive to contribute come to the top of the line’…     [yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Sometimes leaders can feel hard done-by.  They may be getting flack for certain decisions or outcomes over which they had little control. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] It is easy for those in the ‘cheap seats’ to talk about how it might have been done different, or better, but as the Spanish say ‘it is much easier to talk about bulls than to be in the ring!  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘The kind of leader you were before the crisis is the kind of leader that you are going to be today.  The kind of culture you had before the crisis is the kind of culture you are going to have today. [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] The crisis won’t change any of these things.  The time to create a culture that is supportive (as well as challenging) was before the crisis.’ [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘When everybody brings their problem and lands it at the door of the leader there is something wrong – why don’t they discuss it with their colleagues and come with solutions to the leader? [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Why do they not feel empowered to do this? Why do things have to bubble up to the point that it results in a ‘come to Jesus moment’ with the leader?   The dialogue should be ongoing if there is going to be shared ownership and responsibility.’ [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘As a leader who do you get to talk things through with?  If you are listening to people all the time, then you need somebody who will give you an opportunity to talk… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] This is particularly true if you are a highly empathic person and tend to carry people’s problems on your own shoulders. In any respect, I really do believe that every leader should have a coach’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘It sounds like this leader is under a lot of pressure.  So much pressure that they are unable to see the importance of listening to and empowering their team’.  [yasr_visitor_votes]

As leaders we often have to ‘suck it up’.  They say ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’.  Well the feedback you don’t want to hear is the high-fiber bran flakes… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …or the rough oats.  While it may not taste sweet, it is the best for you in the long run.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Leaders cannot hope to avoid the messy stuff.  In the past we had the luxury of seeing the organization as a machine – logical, rational and predictable… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] If something was broken, it was the manager’s job to fix it.  Fact-check: We are not dealing with machines!  We are dealing with people – that means it is often messy, unpredictable, even frustrating.   But there is money in the messy stuff – the same emotion that can express itself in complaining employees is also the emotion that can fuel great passion, creativity, and determination’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Here is what I would say: “You’re Fired!!”  It is not very original, but it is very fitting I think! [yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Some people will be struggling – you may or may not be able to help them.  Afterall, you are the leader, you are not a psychologist… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] But who can you point them too – what support can your organization offer in getting the person the help they need?’ [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Perhaps in the future you may want to invest in emotional intelligence training for your people, but for the moment you are the bulwark between rampant emotions and reflective calmness! [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] As a leader you have to be concerned with the emotions of your people – their fears and concerns – no matter how they may fumble in managing or communicating them.’ [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘I find that one of the most effective ways of preventing chatter in the backchannels of the organization is to be open and transparent… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] …sharing information, engaging people in the decision making process, communicating decisions made and how they were arrived at. By involving people in co-creating the solution they will own the problem and it’s resolution’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘The ideal problem-solving vehicle already exists – it is the team… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] Ultimately, it would be better for people to talk things out with their colleagues, rather than in a one to one with the boss.  Use the power of the team – bring 2 or 3 heads together to discuss a challenge – pair people up so they can support each other. Problems are the ideal means for building the cohesion of a team’.  [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘The leader must set the example – never moaning or criticizing others in front of the team… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] How the leader responds when a person starts moaning or criticizing in a team meeting is especially important. That does not mean shutting the person down, but rather responding in a calm manner – ‘Ralph I hear what you are saying and I respect that you feel strongly about this.  I feel uncomfortable criticizing other colleagues, but if you would like to explore possible solutions to this problem we can arrange to put our heads together on the subject’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Turn the situation around.  That is what I would advise.  The frustration that gives rise to moaning and complaining can be a powerful force if harnessed and channelled in the direction of finding solutions or taking action… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] The question I would have is not why are people complaining, but rather what  is preventing people from finding solutions.  It is the leaders job to empower people to resolve problems’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘With so much negativity in the environment, I am especially conscious of the balance between positive and negative communication within our team… [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”] I try to make opportunities for positive communication where possible – a compliment – a thank you – a piece of good news – a recognition of progress’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]

‘Listen to language – is the person using the word ‘I’, ‘we’ or ‘they’. What does that reveal about the balance of ‘me’ and ‘we’ in your team?  [show_more more=”show more” less=”show less”]  If people are saying things such as: ‘Why are they always doing that?’ that typically indicates that they see the people that they are talking about as belonging to another group – another them’. [/show_more][yasr_visitor_votes]