Workplace Negativity Q&A

March 16, 2001
Here are some of the more common questions asked at both public and in-houseseminars on how to manage workplace negativity.

    How do I motivate employees who have become negative because they havebeen passed over for promotion?
    If they were the best candidates and they were passed over, they probablyhave a right to feel negative. You need to be very supportive at this timeand empathize with them. You do not want their negativity to lessen theirwork performance. You also have to be aware that they make try to makeothers feel their negativity.
    In other cases, employees may believe they were the best candidates but inreality were not. One of the best things to do is to explain and givereasons why they were not ready for the promotion. Also, you should workwith them to develop a career plan that contains specific work-relatedgoals. In this way they can work on any of their performance gaps and beready for the next opportunity for promotion.

    How do I manage my boss's negative attitude? His behaviors affect ourattitude toward work.
    If you have a good relationship with your boss, you should give him or hersome honest feedback. Be sure that the feedback states how the boss'snegativity is affecting the department's or the organization's goals. Try tomake it a business issue and not only an interpersonal communicationproblem. If the boss is a tyrant or you are afraid to approach him or her,you may have to live with it.
    If the behavior really gets bad and begins to seriously affect yourperformance, that of your coworkers, or your success within theorganization, you need to speak to human resources or jump a level. Thiscould be quite risky. You have to know your organization quite well beforetaking this drastic step.

    Other than money, what other things can be used to motivate my staff tokeep them more positive?
    Providing them with interesting work, a fun environment, and positivefeedback; establishing good relationships between them and theirsupervisors; and showing them that the organization is very loyal to themwould reduce negativity and make most individuals much more positive.

    How can I prevent an employee from spreading negativity throughout theteam?
    First you need to find out why the person is being negative. Ask her forthe reasons or any problems that she may be experiencing. There may be manythings you or the organization may do to stop her negativity if she hasvalid reasons for feeling negative. If that turns out not to be the case,you need to communicate to her that this type of behavior is unacceptableand discuss what you need for her to do instead.

    How do I keep a positive attitude when I do not respect my boss?
    This is quite challenging. Many studies have shown that the most importantfactor for happiness at work is one's relationship with his or her immediatesupervisor. I suggest you focus more on your work and the results you areachieving and the furtherance of your career goals. Try to make those yourfocus at work. If you respect your work and other colleagues or others inleadership positions, the negative boss will have a less devastating effecton you.

    What can I do if organizational negativity stems from constant change?
    We cannot avoid change and it is going to hit us at an even more rapidpace in the coming years. The best thing you can do is to discuss the needfor the change before making a decision on whether to implement it. Thenpoint out its benefits and get the people involved in implementing it. Ifyou get a negative reaction to the proposed change, do not automaticallyblame the person for being resistant to change or frozen in his or her ways.Take a look at how you or the organization is handling the change process.That is where the problem often lies.

    How can I get the message across quickly that negativity will not betolerated?
    The best thing you can do is to make it a criterion for performance foreach staff member and include it in the performance review process. I alsostrongly suggest tying it into salary or bonus reviews. The staff memberwill quickly get the message that negativity is not tolerated. He or shewill clearly see the direct connection between being negative and how itaffects his or her review, salary increase, or promotional opportunities.

    How do I keep workplace negativity from seeping into my personal life?
    The best strategy is to try to separate work from the rest of your life.When you leave work each day, try to have other things planned and haveother interests to take your mind off work. And if you can avoid it, try notto take work home with you. About 90 percent of the people who take workhome never get to it anyway.

    How may I unconsciously be encouraging negativity?
    You may be using some negative words at work without knowing it. You mayalso be putting down the company or some of its procedures or managementdecisions, or you may be demonstrating some negative body gestures or facialexpressions, or your voice may have a negative tone. Most negative peopleare not aware that they are coming across as negative.

    How can we minimize the level of negativity in our organization?
    This is a very broad question, and each organization may have tostrategize differently. Generally speaking, however, organizations need toidentify why the negativity exists, come up with action plans for reducingor managing that negativity, and then reward people for changing, or holdthem accountable if they do not.

    What can I do with my work group to prevent negativity before itstarts?
    Constantly monitor them for any signs of negativity and address thesesigns as soon as you see them. Never give people the message that it is OKto be negative. Open channels for communication so you can be aware of anypotential problems that may cause negative work group reactions. Also, buildup the skills and commitment levels of each work group member. Finally, be arole model for the way you want your work group to behave and perform.

    How can I get myself to look at the cup as half full and not halfempty?
    This is not easy, especially if you have been "programmed" overthe years to see the negative side of things. The programmers in this caseare family members, friends, workplaces and school experiences. In a sense,they made us see the cup as half full or half empty.
    It is up to us to change things. Begin to view yourself differently.Practice giving yourself positive self-talk or seeing the positive side toany situation. The more you say positive things to yourself and the more yousee good where once only bad existed, the higher your self-esteem andself-concept become. It is our self-esteem and self-concept that influencewhether we think negatively or in a more positive way.

    How do I eliminate negativity from long-term employees who are justwaiting to retire?
    The trick is not to allow them to be waiting for retirement. Find newopportunities and challenges for them, continue to involve them, make themmentors, and so on. If they do not buy into these approaches, remind them oftheir job responsibilities and the standards of performance expected ofthem. It is never too late to hold someone accountable for doing what he orshe is supposed to do.

    How can we identify hidden negativity?
    Hidden negativity occurs when individuals are not feeling positive aboutwhere they work or what they do, but for various reasons do not overtlydemonstrate their negativity. They may not be expressing it for fear ofretribution. In some work environments, feelings of any kind are notwelcomed.
    This form of negativity is often found in organizations with anextremely strong leadership that does not accept any human frailties. Hiddennegativity ultimately shows itself through increased turnover, high levelsof stress, increased medical claims, and a lessening of quality. Anonymousorganizational surveys will pick up on any hidden negativity.

    In a few sentences, describe what you mean by workplace negativity.
    Workplace negativity is an attitude that people have toward their work,bosses, colleagues, or customers. It causes conflicts and the lowering ofmorale, productivity, and profitability. Work environments that do not meetthe staff's developmental or motivational needs or avoid confrontingindividual negative reactions allow workplace negativity to continue andflourish.

    How is negativity related to anger?
    Negativity is just one of the many ways in which we express our emotions.Anger is one of the stronger emotions. Many people have learned to expresstheir anger by becoming negative. Other reactions to anger would be to yell,throw things, withdraw from the situation, curse, drink, or engage insabotage. Healthier, more positive reactions to anger would be talking abouthow you are feeling, and trying to determine what triggers your anger andhow to handle it in a more constructive way.

    How much do family and personal differences in upbringing influencenegativity?
    These aspects of our histories affect us tremendously. The way we wereraised and the people who raised us greatly influence our perception of theworld and how we handle situations that do not go our way.

    Why are some people so positive while others are so negative?
    People learn to behave in different ways based on their role models, theirexperiences, and the type of behaviors for which they get rewarded. Manynegative people get rewarded for behaving negatively. They get people'sattention or approval. When this occurs, negative people continue to benegative. It may even become the norm of how to behave in organizations. Ifeveryone around you is behaving in a negative way and you want to fit in andbe part of the group, you will become negative as well.

    How do I keep a positive mindset around negative people?
    Try to remember that their negativity is not directed at you personally.Do not become defensive or attack them. Your doing so will make them morenegative. Focus on the positive things you have going for yourself at workand in your personal life. Make it a personal challenge to remain positivewhen you are surrounded by negativity.

    How do you keep employees positive in a downsizing environment?
    There are a few things you can do. First, do not drag out the process. Letpeople know as soon as possible if they are the ones to go. When this changeprocess takes too long and people are not given the information about whatis happening, negativity may increase tremendously. 
    Second, recognize thatthose who stay may become negative as well because they have lost peoplethey were used to working with, and their job responsibilities might havechanged. Be aware that they may be upset and give them the time to readjust.
    Third, actively help those being let go to find new positions in otherorganizations. This gives them a more positive attitude toward the companythat has eliminated their jobs and sends a message to those who remain thatthe company is concerned about everyone's future.

    If being honest and telling the truth creates negativity, is it betterto lie?
    Telling the truth is better. For example, if you have to introduce a newprocess within your group that you disagree with and know that your groupalso disagrees with, hiding your view from the group is the lie. When peopleeventually find out the truth about what you originally thought (whichhappens nine out of ten times), they are likely to become even more negativeabout this process. Be clear, however, that as a team player you support thedecision.

    Does conflict always create negativity?
    Workplace conflict has many positive aspects. It forces people to discussissues that they normally would not. As a result of conflict, new ideas ornew approaches to solving problems emerge. It is definitely positive whenstaff is in conflict about how to make a service or product better. Whenpeople are so concerned about pleasing the customer and arguing about how todo it, a company or organization cannot ask for a more positive situation.Conflict can be a negative, however. Communication can stop, people put downtheir colleagues or bosses, and morale and productivity decrease.

    The members of my current project group are very negative. I haveforgotten what it is like to work on a high-performing work group. How wouldI recognize one?
    A high-performing work group always knows its purpose. Its members rely onone another; there is open, honest communication; each member has a clearrole and a set of responsibilities; and all members achieve their goals.They also enjoy working with one another.

    I have a work group that used to be very negative. After quite astruggle, I have turned around their attitude. What can I do to encouragethem to continue their new ways?
    You can give the group positive feedback and let others in theorganization know how well they are doing. You could also celebrate theirsuccess. Throw a party, take them out to dinner, or purchase some smallgifts. A cash bonus or spot award would send a clear message that youappreciate their new behavior.

    What role should I as a work group member, not the leader or manager,play when a member of the group is being negative?
    Take the responsibility of speaking to your colleague about his or herbehavior and how it is affecting the group's performance. Ideally thisperson will heed your advice and change his or her ways. Of course you mightnot always be able to turn around the person's behavior. In that case, youwill have to speak to the group leader about it and have him or her addressthe issue.
    Quite often I have found that work group members have much more of aninfluence on their colleagues' work behaviors than does the leader ormanager. In fact, having team members evaluate, discipline, motivate, andcoach one another is becoming quite popular in many organizations today.

    What is the best tactic for dealing with a negative colleague:reasoning, anger, joking about it, or ignoring it?
    Depending on the colleague and the way this person expresses his or hernegativity, different tactics will work better. It is best to understand theperson's work style and how he or she responds to feedback. Never ignore thebehavior for more than a few days; this gives the person the impression thatit is OK to be negative.

    What is the connection between home life and negativity on the job?
    Many people who have unpleasant personal lives or are going through atemporarily difficult time will often let these situations influence theirwork attitudes. We must recognize that this will happen and beunderstanding. We must remember that all members of our work group have acomplicated life outside of work and that they have had to make adjustmentsto be able to be here.
    Nevertheless, when a staff member's personal problemconstantly cause him or her to have a negative approach to work, thatnegativity must be addressed. Offer the person some help or counseling ifnecessary, but remind him or her that negativity cannot be expressed atwork.

    When I am having a bad day at work, what can I do to relieve my stressso that I do not transmit my negative feelings to others?
    That you are aware of your negativity and are concerned about spreading itis the crucial first step. Most people in negative states of mind want tospread it to others. It is very refreshing to hear individuals who realizethat they are negative and are trying not to influence others.
    I wouldsuggest that you take a few deep breaths often throughout the day, buyyourself one of those stress-relieving balls and squeeze it, take shortbreaks to escape the stress of the day, or go out to lunch. Also, keep amirror on your office wall so you can see your facial expressions, call afriend or family member who can cheer you up, or have a picture of yourfavorite place in the world as your screen saver.

    How does one catch the negativity bug at work?
    As with any virus, a few things have to occur. You have to come intocontact with the virus. In this case it is a person with a bad attitude.Then you have to be receptive to the virus. That is, there has to be areason why you would be open to the negativity. Perhaps company profits aredown, or you did not get that promotion or the boss has chewed you out, oryou are insecure about the impending reorganization. You now have the virus.
    But after a day or two you probably can shake it off, unless it becomes apermanent condition. It can become permanent or linger on if you keepgetting exposed to it, if you are open to it (if your positive immunity isdown), and if no one tries to help you treat it or if you cannot treat it onyour own.

    If a coworker has a negative attitude and is a constant complainer,for example, how do you judge whether he or she is harmless or a viruscarrier?
    Anyone who has a negative communication style is a potential carrier. Theonly way your coworker can spread the virus is if other people are receptiveto it. If other work group members have a positive attitude or can discountthe behaviors of this complainer, they will not catch the virus. After manyrepeated contacts with this same person or other coworkers with negativehabits, however, it will get harder and harder for them to fight off thevirus.

    I work for a company that is doing quite well now. With increasingcompetition, however, I am worried about our future. One of our biggestbarriers to success is the negativity that seems to exist within all areasof the organization. What can we do to eliminate negativity?
    Trying to eliminate negativity is an exercise in futility. Negativity cannever totally be eliminated. There will always be incidents to cause people,work groups, departments, or entire organizations to become negative. Thejob of the organization is to teach its staff and leaders how to managenegativity.


SOURCE:Managing Workplace Negativity, Copyright© 2000 American Management Association International, 

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