Addressing Negativity at Work
Do you work with individuals who are continually critical, negative and resistant to change? And for some reason, it often tends to be staff who have been at the workplace for a long time. (Though, in defence of senior staff, they have often seen it all before and feel confident enough to speak up).
On the one hand, this is a very human thing to do. Social psychologists say that human beings are born with a negativity bias, which helps us to identify dangers and threats, thus ensuring our survival over millennia. But when our survival is not at risk, this negativity bias is over-used, this can be frustrating for others.
I think that we are right to cut such people slack from time to time, allow them to be human, and appreciate that they often have a number of things they are unhappy about at home and work.
But, on the other hand, it is important that we act to address ongoing criticism and negativity. Over time, such behaviour can be very damaging to relationships, tends to be quite demoralising, and discourages people from showing initiative. And if negativity is modelled consistently enough by the power-brokers at work, a culture of negativity can develop, as the standard for acceptable behaviour has been set.
If you are dealing with ongoing criticism or negativity from an individual or a group of people, here are some options for turning such behaviour around.
- Address their concerns where possible: I recall one very negative team member who was particularly unhappy with not having a say in decisions that affected her work. When her supervisor delegated authority to her to make certain decisions about her work, this certainly helped to reduce her negativity.
Of course, there may well be concerns they have that are completely out of your control to address, such as personal challenges at home. With these types of concerns, you may at least be able to give them some of what they need - empathy or support from you while they are dealing with the challenges.
- Encourage acceptance of those workplace challenges that are out of their control: With major changes they are very unhappy about, for example, you may need to let them know or remind them if the changes are a fait acompli – where a decision has already been made.
Good leaders allow people to be human and express their unhappiness with such changes over a period of time. But they remind people to put a time limit on such venting and move their energy into acceptance and finding a way to make things work.
They also set a great example of modelling acceptance and positivity. I heard one manager say recently that she doesn’t always have to like a decision made by central office, but it is her (and everyone else’s) job to put such decisions into effect. Another manager reminds her staff that they are the 'Can Do Team' and they will find a way to get things done and do it well.
- Follow up with people individually: Often people may not be aware of how they are coming across. Don’t criticise them. Instead, mention, in a caring way what you have noticed and ask if they are OK. Balance their need for empathy and understanding from you with a request from for them to speak to you sooner if they have concerns, be alert to how they are coming across, or generate solutions that also take into account the workplace’s needs.
After several work-it-out conversations such as those above, there are also times when more firm conversations are needed where you are clear about your expectations for that individual.
Remember to reinforce progress whenever you see it – raising concerns directly with you, beginning to explore a workplace change they were unhappy about, or generating possible solutions even if what they suggest is unviable.
- Gain consensus on the values and behaviours to be shared by everyone at work: This approach aims to use our need to be approved of by others to shape the behaviour of negative individuals. Here there is discussion about the group rules – what everyone will do to contribute to morale, how challenges and differences of opinion will be dealt with, and the standards of service that everyone will practise.
Such Statements of Shared Values and Behaviours are making obvious the group norms and dynamics that make very good teams. The leaders and senior staff obviously need to be setting the example, people need to be caught doing the right thing, but individuals are also held accountable.
- Encourage more positivity: The happier the workplace and the better the relationships, the more likely that challenges are kept in perspective and negativity decreases. This is why in high-performing teams doing quite stressful work, you still tend to see a lot of playfulness, laughter and very good relationships.
Of course, it is essential that leaders also model positivity. One manager I know not only sets the right example, she also genuinely reminds her staff that they are the can-do-team and they will find a way to get things done and do it well.
Certainly actions are important in generating positivity, including morning teas, finding time to talk, planned silliness such as dress-up days, etc. And actions also need to be taken to address ongoing significant challenges that are contributing to misery, at least those challenges that are within your control.
But remember, it is not the total absence of stressors that contributes to high-morale and good relationships, but consistent positive actions modeled by the leadership and shared by the majority of team members.
What will you do to turn negativity around and generate more positivity at your workplace?