What to do with proposal “graphics & mayonnaise” complainers?

Dear Proposal Doctor,

Managing a big, complicated proposal is hard enough without having to listen to my complainers all day. I have two of them. They complain about everything from the quality of the graphics to the mayonnaise on the sandwiches at lunch. Responding to their issues and listening to them vent is just taking too much of my time, and I am worried about meeting our deadline for red team. I might even have to postpone it. How can I deal with these individuals?

Sick and Tired

Dear Sick,

I guess you didn’t see the column I wrote on proposal archetypes. The complainer exhibits many of the behaviors of the martyr and the talker, and probably the worst of both.

Here are two principles to keep in mind. First, forget responding to their specific complaints. The complaints are symptoms of an underlying attitude problem. If you improve the mayonnaise, they will start complaining about the mustard. If you hire a better graphics person, they will start complaining about the desktop publishing. Removing a source of dissatisfaction does not create satisfaction. Second, consider the aptitude/attitude matrix:

The mistake that almost all first-time managers make is to spend their time with people in the lower left quadrant, when they should be spending their time with people in the upper right quadrant.

With these principles in mind, where do your two Bobsey twins fit? We already know they are not in either of the two upper boxes. If they are in the bottom right box, which is to say that they are producing valuable content, then it is worth coaching them individually so that they are aware of the effects of their behavior?

It isn’t just about your time. Complainers sap the energy and enthusiasm of the entire team, and with two of them feeding on each other, you could have a serious morale meltdown if you don’t nip this problem in the bud.

There are plenty of creative ways for complainers to get things off their chest. You can create a space on the electronic Team Site, on the proposal wall, in a journal, on suggestion cards. They can have a 5-minute time slot each day to complain to one other person (preferably someone not on the proposal team). Or you could counsel them to exercise some self control until the proposal is done, after which they can complain to anyone who is willing to listen. On one proposal we had a box on the table for the whiners: each whine carried a $5 price tag.

If your twins are in the bottom left box, it is time to replace them. No matter who takes their place, you won’t be worse off than you are now. And then, make sure you start paying attention to the people in the upper right quadrant. They are the ones who need your attention, recognition, and reinforcement.

Just as an aside, it always amuses me to hear proposal managers complain. When I hear a proposal manager complain about lack of sleep, pressure, too much to do, etc., I always want to ask them why they are in this profession. Complaining appears to be an American tradition, and it is something we excel at. That doesn’t mean that it is admirable or productive.

All the best,

Wendy Frieman, The Proposal Doctor