Every workplace has that person who’s always got something to complain about. Sure, sometimes things go off the rails and it’s entirely warranted. But I’m talking about the person who will go out of their way to find the negative in any and everything. They’re exhausting.

But what about when reasonable people complain? And keep complaining? What if everyone is complaining? What if it isn’t just about one thing that went wrong?

On an important level, this might put you in a fortunate position. People who are complaining are still engaged; they still care. They can still be convinced that things can be fixed, and might even be convinced to help.

When they stop complaining, it means they no longer think there’s any point to it. They don’t think things can be fixed and they aren’t going to do anyone any favours. They have disengaged and stopped caring.

At that point you’re very likely doomed. People will start leaving for places that are less messed up (as discussed in the last column), or where it at least seems like those in charge have their heads screwed on straight and listen. (Or can at least tell new hires a good enough story that all is well there.)

Now, not everyone who’s disengaged will leave. Sometimes people stay because they have little choice, or don’t think anywhere else will be better. There’s even the rare person who’s never been engaged at work beyond strictly doing their job.

Once this is happening, then what? It’s fairly common for internal issues to become external issues. A lack of knowledge, expertise and bodies to get things done makes everything worse, from the sales cycle to supporting customers to the maintenance of existing products and development of new ones. It can lead to a company’s death spiral.

But let’s back up. The end is not yet nigh. People are just grumbly to varying degrees. The sky has not yet fallen, so how do you make sure it doesn’t? Can you?

Start with some questions. First: What are people complaining about and why?

People are more likely to complain openly with their peers, even sometimes with their managers if they have good rapport and feel the manager is on their side. Plus, if the issue resides with poeple above both of you, it may be relatively safe to do.

If peers are complaining and you don’t understand, the problem might be something endemic to the company that started before you got there. It just raises its ugly head from time to time, and it’s unlikely there’s anything you can do about it. If you’re not complaining about it, there’s a good chance it’s not affecting you anyway. At least not yet.

If you don’t know what people are complaining about and why, it’s not affecting you, and you’re not in a position to help fix it, then you can pretty much sit this one out – unless it’s an issue that requires solidarity across the company to get prioritized and fixed. In that case, you need to get yourself educated tout de suite and at least be an ally.

If you are in a position of authority and can fix at least some things, but don’t know what people are complaining about and why, don’t you wonder why that is? Remember who Taylor Swift said the problem is? Yeah, hi.

This can become apparent if you try to ask people what’s going on and no one wants to talk to you, or pretends nothing is wrong. Even if you’re not the problem, you may very well be seen by the people you’re asking as unsafe to talk to. Which then means you potentially have two problems.

Now, it is possible people won’t want to talk, and that you aren’t the problem. You’ve just found the people who are checked out. They don’t want to talk because they’re complained-out and no longer care. But pay attention to how many of them there are.

If you’ve managed to find out what people are complaining about and why, do a gut check. People will always find things to complain about at work. Some are small things and some are huge. Some may have nothing to do with you and others are mission-critical to your work.

Are you surprised by what the problem is? What’s your knee-jerk reaction? Is there someone whose fault you immediately think it is? If people think it’s your fault, do you feel the complaints are valid or that you can at least understand where they’re coming from, or is your first reaction to deflect or get defensive? Do you think it’s nonsense and people are being a bunch of whiners?

If people have stepped out of their comfort zone to tell you you’re the problem, and you’re getting mad at them… they’re probably right. People’s complaints, in a weird, twisted way, are a gift (of information), if you’re willing to receive it.

Sit on your immediate reaction for a bit. Your thinking, understanding, compassion and strategic skills will be better after you’ve had some time to process, hopefully. Best-case scenario: You accept where you or others screwed up, and how to start taking responsibility and fixing it.

Now, this obviously requires you to be in a position of at least some authority, or in close enough proximity to power, to influence it. If you want to fix things and can’t for whatever reason… well, you may well have taken your first steps toward becoming one of those checked-out people, too.

You might have noted that, when I mentioned finding out what’s wrong, I didn’t include trying to find out just how bad things are. It’s possible you will find out both at the same time, but not necessarily – which is fine, because you’ll probably be in a better position to understand how bad things are after some of the aforementioned processing time.

Besides, finding out what the issue is really only requires talking to one person, whereas finding out how bad things are probably requires talking to a lot more people. Any one person can tell you how bad they think things are, but who knows if that’s also what other people think? Maybe it’s just one team falling apart, maybe it’s the whole company.

There are signs you can pick up on that don’t require a tonne of sleuthing. Have a lot of people resigned or gone on leave recently? Is the growth of that number accelerating? From one department or all over the company? Have there been issues with deliverables from any particular teams? Is attendance at company meetings or events waning, even if headcount is mostly the same?

Add a few signals together and, even in the absence of direct confirmation, you should be able to put together a decent picture of where people are and what shape the company is in. That said, it still might not tell you if the issue is temporary or long-term.

Finally, the big question: Can it be fixed? Can you fix it or influence others to prioritize doing so? You might get to this point and gather all this info and then realize no, you can’t. Or no, they won’t. Or no, it won’t happen because what’s happening is on purpose for Reasons. That will suck. You may feel like joining in with the complaining now. Or the slope to your own checking-out might have just gotten more slippery.

It can be rough when you’ve become convinced the sky is falling, and you care that it is, and you have ideas to fix it, but can’t get others to take it as seriously as you do. But of course, those in positions of authority may have several falling skies, and/or other priorities, plus the day-to-day demands that go with having a company to run and whatnot.

Maybe, as noted earlier, it’s not a new issue, and it comes around from time to time. Or, as also noted, it’s a known side effect of some other necessary decision(s). Things could be fine and just need time to run their course.

Or people could start checking out and leaving. In which case you need to focus on you, how you feel about things, how safe your job is, how you’ll be able to do it (or not), or whether you want to leave (and can you?). The urge to become one of the complainers will probably strengthen. You can join in if you need to. Sometimes blowing off steam can help. We feel heard by those who get it, and then we can refocus.

But if the issue is bigger than that, and there’s no hope in sight? Don’t mistake complaining for action. The odds of it improving anything are very low, and your job and/or career demand more than slacktivism.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.