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Easy remedies for managing negativity in the workplace

Updated on January 2, 2015

Work towards employee engagement

From time to time you will come across certain individuals in your workforce who seem to enjoy causing trouble. By that I don’t mean the openly hostile employee who will need to be “counselled”, but the person who is so undermining that they can be likened to a virus.

There are several types to watch out for. You will be very aware of the person for whom life is full of setbacks and they will announce their current dramatic story and embellish it every time they tell it, spreading despondency. Keep them busy, and gently rebuff their overly dramatic claims by saying something like “Wow, you can certainly tell a good story, let's get on with your project now”.

Then there is the person who loves a good moan: nothing is ever good enough for them. These people are readily identifiable but there is also the more subversive person whose negativity makes the manager’s job harder. Outwardly, they will appear to co-operate, or probably more exactly, they do just enough to escape criticism. They probably display a lack of respect behind the manager’s back. A primary cynic, they will have “seen it all before”, tell you that innovative projects and action just won’t work and they are huge demotivators in the workplace.

Some people make great effort at work avoidance, only performing to the letter of their job description and no more. They can be quite skilful manipulators of their colleagues and will take advantage of any weaknesses that they perceive in their managers. Often colleagues will feel too intimidated by them to push against this tide of negativity. Team and whole departments can become frustrated when such a person seems to be “getting away with it” and can retreat into their own world. You must do something about this work subversive. It can be an uphill climb but worth it in the end for you to retain your managerial prerogative.

Positive people

But what a difference when you are lucky enough to have a team of positive people. They self-initiate projects, work to high standards and collaborate readily with other people whether in their own team or not. In such case of high employee engagement, personal performance and productivity is increased, they meet challenges head on and look for opportunities.

What’s the root cause of negativity?

Leaving aside the person who deliberately sets out to abuse systems for criminal intent, mercifully there are few of these, there are steps that you can take to improve negativity. Changing a culture can be difficult but essentially this is what you will be doing. In fact you must take action if you are to prevent toxic situations in your workforce. Apart from some very rare cases, most people come to work to do at least a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Boredom can have a dangerous effect on many people with negative outcomes. Some people will seek to spice up their day by pulling pranks. This can get out of hand to such a level that it actually becomes bullying. Or counter measures can see pranks becoming more serious or overtake the reason why someone is employed, with poor effects upon productivity.

Some people became demotivated when they do not understand the reasons behind certain policies or see managerial actions as pointless. Quite often change to work practices can be hugely unsettling and they feel confused and less in control over their work. However, change is an imperative in all organisations which must react to external pressures.

Sometimes an experienced individual will see a new manager as something of an upstart, objecting to being managed by someone whom they view as clueless. This can lead to lack of respect for the manager with poor consequences for the business as well as the manager.

Action list for improvement

The good news is that there are a number of actions that can be taken to remedy negativity. The bad news is that it will not happen overnight. In any case, encouragement of positivity needs to be continuous. The following action list highlights areas where improvements can be made. However, where you have an individual who is very disruptive you should consider taking disciplinary action. You will need to undertake a thorough investigation to gain evidence and it may be that you have to move them to a different job or even manage a mischief maker out of your business.

  • Welcome and act on employee ideas. Encouraging employees to create ideas and new methods goes hand in hand with involving them in the business. As far as possible, include your workforce in your business ideas and plans. A good idea doesn’t mind who thought of it and people at grass roots have an excellent perspective on how processes and systems can be improved. Be sure to thank an individual or team for their suggestions and discuss with them the feasibility for putting their ideas into practice. People can become very demotivated and cynical if they get involved but find that their idea is discounted for no apparent reason or worse still, if they are just ignored.
  • Always show appreciation for work done by your employees. A simple thank you and recognising extra effort goes a long way to motivate people. There doesn’t have to be any tangible reward attached to it, but even just bringing in a box of biscuits for the team to share is a gesture that will be taken positively.
  • Make sure that you explain reasons for company decisions. Of course that means that you need to fully understand them. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with certain decisions, don’t be tempted to express that but seek a way to work through it positively as a role model.
  • Break down “silo mentality”. Try to involve your people in cross-functional projects to prevent a "them and us" culture. Also, don’t always have the same people in teams, move them around as this will not only enable more people to become experienced but keeps interest fresh.
  • Ensure that projects are finished and that outcomes are reviewed. Sometimes there is a tendency to rush into projects which get dropped because senior management has lost interest and employees pick up the message that their work is of no value
  • Encourage ownership of work, and a pride taken in doing a job well. This might be to meet or even exceed standards of quality, time or cost saving, and certainly an understanding of how they contribute to customer satisfaction.
  • Actively discourage gossip or “war stories” about other people at work. Certainly do not relate negative stories about other managers. People, sometimes feel that they should take sides and can lose respect for others. Interestingly, many people have a tendency to believe bad stories about people more so than the good ones!
  • Ensure that you demonstrate integrity and fairness. If you say you are going to do something, then make sure you follow it through or have a very good reason why not. And, of course, make sure that you follow your own standards that you set for others. Follow through with promises.
  • Praise in public but correct people in private. You are aiming to help people to retain respect and self esteem. If you need to correct attitude or mistakes, this is private between you and your employee and nobody else’s business.
  • As a general rule, people appreciate being included in relevant training and development. Being selected for specialist training can heighten a person’s self esteem and it is difficult to be negative if you can demonstrate how useful their new knowledge will be. However be careful that being selected for any special treatment isn’t seen as a reward for negative behaviour.


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