Overcome negativity

Culture  Leadership
31 December, 2018

It’s time to stop giving negativity free rein at the workplace.

Did you know that a majority of employees waste 10 hours or more per month complaining or listening to complaints about their managers? And one-third spend 20 hours or more! This obviously goes far beyond healthy venting – it means many people spend a considerable portion of their professional life engaged in pointless negativity.

Negativity at the office comes in different forms: whining and criticising, emotionally manipulating co-workers, and dismissing anything new. When these negative behaviours escalate, the atmosphere at work becomes stressful and toxic. Energy and morale get sapped, and precious attention is diverted away from work. Teams become dysfunctional.

The impact isn’t just organisational. At an individual level, too, negativity takes a toll – whether you’re dealing with negative people or being negative yourself. It wears you down, hurts your productivity, and damages your equations with co-workers. It can even affect your relationships with family and friends.

As the year comes to an end, please reflect and ask yourself: Do I indulge in negativity? Do my team members and colleagues? If yes, what steps can we take to eliminate these destructive behaviours? And how can we continue to work with negative people without letting them pull us down? 

Curt Coffman, co-author of Gallup’s book First, Break All the Rules, describes negative people as “cave dwellers”, based on the fact that they are “Consistently Against VirtuallEverything”. In his words:

These types of employees act out their unhappiness…. They operate from the mindset that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. The negativity they spread is like a blood clot; actively disengaged employees clot together in groups that support and reinforce their beliefs…. they thrive on being part of the problem.

If the person with the negative attitude is in a position of leadership, things get even more unpleasant. Apart from always focusing on the worst in people and situations, such a leader might use tactics like being passive-aggressive, ostracising people who disagree, and encouraging bad blood against other leaders and teams. This creates conflict, intensifies gossip, and divides people into silos, making the office a depressing and angry place.

If your team has become dysfunctional and the environment around you is toxic, then it’s time to look in the mirror. Chances are that your own behaviour or insecurities have something to do with this situation.

As leaders, how can we stop perpetuating negativity? And what can we proactively do to encourage a healthy, positive work culture? Here are five recommendations:

1. Audit your behaviour

Ask yourself the tough questions. Do you spend a lot of time complaining – either to your peers or to your team? Do you play favourites? Do you instantly look for flaws in new ideas, so you can shoot them down? Do you provide far more criticism than praise? Do you use “the silent treatment” to show your displeasure? Do you resort to divide-and-rule tactics to maintain power?

All of these are signs of negative leadership. Once you identify which of these behaviours are a problem for you personally, you can take action to address them. In his article, Reducing Negativity in the Workplace, Marshall Goldsmith recommends asking four questions before making a negative comment at the workplace:

  • Will this comment help our company?
  • Will this comment help our customers?
  • Will this comment help the person that I am talking to?
  • Will this comment help the person that I am talking about?

If the answer to all four is “no”, if your words will add no value – then it’s better not to say them at all.

2. Appreciate the good

Few things are more disheartening than working with someone who only criticises you and points out your mistakes. To be a leader who lifts people up (instead of bringing them down), you need to also recognise what they’re doing well, so they know their work is being seen and valued.

Make a genuine effort to look for and celebrate the positive contributions of your team members. Don’t play co-workers against one another; encourage them to cheer each other’s achievements. Honest, generous appreciation has a powerful ripple effect and plays a pivotal role in dismantling a toxic culture.

3. Communicate effectively

Confusion fuels resentment and complaints, which is why leaders must learn to communicate information in a clear, timely way. Be forthcoming about your expectations and priorities. Connect the dots between people’s individual goals and the larger organisational objective, so they can understand the “why” behind your ask. When an important decision is made, provide context and clarity. Don’t allow people’s imaginations to run wild, and stop half-truths and rumours from festering.

4. Include people in decision-making

In the article, Tips for Minimizing Workplace Negativity, Susan M. Heathfield explains:

Provide opportunities for people to make decisions about and control and/or influence their own job. The single most frequent cause of workplace negativity is traceable to a manager or the organization making a decision about a person’s work without their input. Almost any decision that excludes the input of the person doing the work is perceived as negative.

In a culture that empowers employees and holds them accountable, people are less prone to playing the blame game. Instead, supported by their leader, they focus on solving the problems that bother them.

5. Facilitate avenues for dissent

Be it in a meeting room or a town hall, it’s crucial to create space for people to express their counterviews. Under authoritative leadership, negativity thrives: employees don’t have the opportunity to dissent and debate in a healthy manner, so they resort to endless complaints and criticism among themselves. Whether it’s a project you’re working on or a new company policy that’s been rolled out, take the time to hear out people’s concerns and address them.

Managing negative employees 

Like a bad apple, one member with a negative attitude can infect an entire team. As a leader, it’s up to you to curb their corrosive impact – for everyone’s sake. Don’t wait around for a scheduled review; you need to have a conversation with them as soon as possible.

In How to Keep One From Spoiling the Whole Bunch, Megan Moran advises managers to document the behaviour of negative team members. Her tips could also be helpful in guiding your conversation:

What is considered good documentation?

  • AccurateProvide facts, omit opinions
  • ConciseDon’t generalize. This can be seen as subjective as well.
  • Specific. Include facts and specific examples.
  • Professional. Follow company policies and omit emotions from notes.

Avoid generalised statements like “don’t be so negative” and focus on specific behaviours instead. Probe for underlying concerns that may be triggering the negativity. If the employee has a legitimate grievance, work on solving it together. If they’re going through a tough time at home, offer empathy and support – but also stress the importance of not letting personal problems affect their work.

In his Harvard Business Review article, How to Respond to Negativity, Peter Bregman lays out a three-step process for turning around negative people that you may find useful:

  • Understand how they feel and validate it.This might be hard because it could feel like you’re reinforcing their negative feelings. But you’re not. You’re not agreeing with them or justifying their negativity. You’re simply showing them that you understand how they feel.
  • Find a place to agree with them.You don’t have to agree with everything they’ve said, but, if you can, agree with some of what they’re feeling. If you share some of their frustrations, let them know which.
  • Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it.This doesn’t mean trying to convince them to be positive. It means giving attention to whatever positive feelings they do show…. And to offer concrete hope. It’s concrete because it’s based on actual positive feelings people already have, rather than harping on positive feelings you think they should have. 

One final point: do be consistent when managing negativity. If you respond immediately to one person’s negative behaviour but give someone else a free pass, your team will see it as preferential treatment – which could worsen the situation.

Dealing with negative people

 Here are three things to keep in mind when dealing with negative co-workers or clients:

1. It’s not you, it’s them

Don’t take their jibes and criticisms personally. Remind yourself it’s their attitude that’s the problem – not you! Don’t allow them to take up more of your time and thoughts than absolutely necessary. When the discussion ends, shake it off and move on.

2. Play it cool

It’s important not to get angry and defensive, because that will simply add fuel to the fire and extend the interaction. Stay cool and collected: keep your voice calm and your body language in check. Avoid impulsive comments and sarcasm. Resist the temptation to get drawn into an argument you don’t even want.

3. Keep your eye on the prize

Focus on your goal for the conversation, not the person. Don’t allow the dialogue to get derailed by personal attacks: if it veers off track, bring it back to the relevant issue.

I hope some of these suggestions help you kick-start 2019 on a more positive, productive note. As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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