Negativity is toxic. It might start with one person or one incident, but it can spread like lightning. As the phrase goes, “misery loves company.” Everybody gets caught up in some type of workplace negativity from time to time. That’s just part of the challenges and emotions that come with being human. Managers may need support and tips for managing negativity so that it doesn’t impact productivity and morale.
So how can you manage negativity in the workplace?
Tip 1: Catch Negativity Early
Many situations can trigger a negative attitude: a heavy workload, a personality clash, a last-minute project or just everyday work stress. Be aware and look for early signs of negativity. Complaining, hopelessness, uncertainty, and feelings of frustration or hostility toward management are all warning signs.
Identifying negativity with a remote workforce is more difficult. You might notice lower levels of engagement in team calls or during 1:1 chats. Missed deadlines or resistance on certain tasks and projects might be another sign of negativity with your remote team.
But remember these are just signs of negativity. They are the outward indication something deeper is going on. It is your job as a manager to figure out what the true issue is and how to respond.
Tip 2: Have the Talk
This might be with an individual or a team. What starts out as negative behavior might be rooted in strong emotion. Be prepared if someone starts crying, if someone gets angry, or if they are silent. Negativity is a sign that something is wrong, you need to get to figure out what's going on beneath the surface.
The point of the talk is not to lay blame - that only makes people more defensive and increases the negativity. The point of the talk is to uncover the root cause and begin moving toward a different way of acting. To do this, you must try to listen to, and understand, the concerns of those involved. Then help them see the reality of the situation.
In some cases, it might be helpful to let the person vent. An empathetic manager can give a voice to the frustrated or stressed employee who is the source of the negativity. People feel better about their negative feelings if someone agrees with them. As a manager, you may not necessarily agree, but you can guide them on how to manage and work through their negativity.
Tip 3: Cite Specific Behaviors
When you bring the issue of negativity to someone’s attention, don’t use blanket generalizations. Instead, bring up specific examples of behaviors that you have observed. Help them understand the direct impact of their actions.
One of the toughest parts of being a manager is having concerned conversations. Whether the topic is tardiness, mistakes being made, or in this case, negativity, it’s important to show compassion when you cite the specific behaviors.
Tip 4: Allow Time to Respond
When confronted about our attitude or behavior, we get defensive. It’s natural. Instead of a confrontation, communicate with a respectful tone. The goal is an open conversation, not a battle. The idea is for you to help them be open and honest about what's really bothering them. Give them time to complain or explain, and make sure you listen. Try not to get defensive yourself or react based on emotion. Your mission is to help them process their feelings and to manage the negativity.
Tip 5: Listen to Understand
Before you go into the conversation, think about what your intentions are with the meeting. Respectful communication, honest sharing of concerns, and both parties listening with an open mind. As the manager, do your best to really listen to the complaints or the explanation of the source of negativity. There’s a good chance the employee is seeing the situation from a different point of view, possibly with a perspective you missed. This is an opportunity for you to learn, too.
Tip 6: Create a Plan
Use this discussion as a springboard for moving forward to not just manage negativity but to possibly pivot to a more positive attitude. Keep in mind, depending on the issues, this might take several conversations before you can get to a plan. That's ok, as long as you are both moving the conversation forward.
If the source of negativity was gossip, explain that spreading negative opinions and feeding the office grapevine are not productive. Then develop some alternative courses of action for when they encounter or experience these triggers in the future.
If the source is a larger issue like an abusive co-worker, an unrealistic and overwhelming deadline, or a dramatic change in policy, your plan will need to be more than a change in attitude. You may need to offer more training, reassign work, or involve HR.
Tip 7: Learn to Manage Your own Negativity
Everyone can get frustrated and have a bad day. But the better you manage your own negative tone, the easier it will be to foster a positive culture for your team. I find it helpful to have that one co-worker who makes up my inner circle. We vent to each other and process our annoyances and disappointments in private. Our own “Festivus” or airing of grievances (Seinfeld nod). Then we can collaborate on a plan of action so we can present a positive attitude for our team and keep moving forward. “Serenity now! Serenity now!” (Another nod to Seinfeld!) Clearly, my coworker and I use humor as a tool to manage our own negativity!
Training Topics for Managing Negativity
Managers need a variety of soft skills to succeed in situations like this. Our off-the-shelf library offers a variety of courses that could help. Our clients typically open the library to all employees so they can engage in self-directed learning to find the courses they need for themselves or for their team. In this case, a few courses that could be helpful to a leader who is trying to manage the negativity with their team or an individual include:
- Managing Negativity (Yes, we have a course with this title!)
- Concerned Conversations
- Empathy as a Leader
- Active Listening
- Emotional Intelligence
- Improve Employee Social Awareness Through Workplace Empathy
- How Do You Train Critical Observation?
- Is Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Real?
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2015 and has been updated for freshness and comprehensiveness.