How to Deal with Boys Who Cry Wolf

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Mostly everyone has heard Aesop’s fable of a boy who was tasked to herd a flock of sheep on a hilltop while other villagers worked in a nearby field. The boy was so bored that he pretended a wolf was attacking the herd and he called for help. Huffing and puffing his elders ran up the hill only to find him laughing at them, clearly delighted with his “clever” joke. He did it again and again every time causing the same reaction from people, until the very last time when a wolf actually showed up and destroyed all the sheep. Only this time, no one flinched at the boy’s pleas for help since he had lost all credibility.

Does this remind you of anyone you may know in your personal or professional life? Millennia may have passed since Aesop’s times, but his characters are still around. The modern day boys who cry wolf come in all sizes and shapes. They aren’t necessarily all boys either. But they do have a lot in common, mainly, their insatiable love for complaining. They whine about the times they live in, their circumstances, the work they have to do and of course their main target – the people they are surrounded with. At times, it doesn’t even matter if they have met the very people they are unhappy about, they still easily find faults with them. Some even go as far as complaining about those who are no longer among us. Once I worked with a guy from Texas named Bill, who relentlessly grumbled about Princess Diana. Parted by the oceans and class differences to say the least, not only their paths had never crossed for her to even remotely inflict harm on him, Bill managed to keep his remarks alive long after the Princess passed!

With their endless grievances, boys who cry wolf eventually desensitize us to their “troubles”. But as tempting as it could be to discount their negativity, we cannot simply ignore them either.

Here are a few ways to deal with complainers.

  • Listen to the nature of the complaint. I totally get it – how many times we all heard “wolf”. But assuming the problem does not exist may potentially lead us to losing some sheep. After all, even a chronic complainer might be legitimately pointing out an error or a deficiency that could be corrected with timely action. Besides, if it turns out he was right and his warning could have prevented a serious problem, the boy who cried wolf will never let you hear the end of it.
  • Chronic complainers are not strangers to exaggerating their “problem”. So hear them out and ask for the specifics of what is not working for them. I had to deal with a fellow manager who liked to spew generic negative statements instead of offering constructive criticism. Once I created a form at his request and the only feedback I received was – “It sucks!” I gently pointed out how that blanket statement was not helping me understand what exactly was wrong with the form and had him actually go over the document and specify which sections he would rather see refined. Turned out, even though the form did not “suck” it could definitely benefit from some tweaking.
  • Nothing ever is good enough for them, everything is gloom and doom. With a negative Nelly like that you cannot force your positivity onto her. But you can help her reframe how she sees the situation. Have her go through the conscious exercise of seeing and listing out any possible positive aspects of the event or the person she is dealing with. Seeing for herself that not everything is hopeless might help her move beyond the tunnel vision and develop some appreciation for other people’s work or for her surroundings.
  • Ask them to come up with their own solution to the problem they complain about, or to suggest a couple of alternatives to the existing solution they are frustrated with. Anyone can offer criticism from the height of a hilltop, but stepping onto the action field and proposing working solutions requires more effort. If time after time the complainer is confronted with the expectation to become a part of the solution vs a part of the problem, it might make them think deeper before they voice their next grievance.

It’s hard to hear constant complaints and it’s even harder to stay positive in such environments. But it is very important to remain in control and to refrain from picking up the very habits we find unproductive in others. Share what techniques have helped you deal with boys who cry wolf on your hilltop and how you manage not to turn into one yourself.

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  1. Very interesting analogy to the ancient fable! I find it so relevant to what we often deal with in our daily lives today.

    1. So many of these fables are timeless! No matter how long ago they were written the human factor remains the same. And that is so fascinating to me!

  2. Beautifully said! I can just add we can refrain from picking up bad habits by using self awareness and self observation techniques.

  3. Natella, thank you for such a useful tips on coping with complainers. Unfortunately in our every day life we have to deal with them much more often than we would like to:)

  4. There was a specific case which I witnessed in the past where the chronic complainer’s actual motive was simply to gain attention from his peers and management. He wanted more than anything to be noticed but rather than do something positive through hard work and support of his teammates, he chose to point his finger and lay blame on others. I don’t think he understood exactly how negative his actions were being perceived until it was too late. If Management could have channeled his energy in the right direction earlier, he might have avoided his early exit. I will say that the atmosphere in the office the day after he was fired was serene to say the least.

    1. There is a lot to say about toxic behaviour in a workplace. Nothing good can ever come out of it for either of the involved parties. This situation is a great example of how sometimes parting ways unfortunately is the only feasible way once things get out of control. Thank you for sharing Jason.