There was a comment in response to The Manager’s Boot Camp blog post about motivating staff, ‘how do I deal with negativity? ‘Negativity’ is a complex topic since people can be negative due to many conscious and unconscious factors such as attitude, personality, or strategy. Regardless of the cause, however, sustained negativity can result in a dysfunctional and sometimes toxic work environment. The manager must, therefore, be prepared to deal with negativity in a timely way.

According to the Oxford dictionary,, negativity is defined as the expression of criticism of or pessimism about something. And, I would add, sometimes seemingly ‘everything’. The Winnie the Pooh character, Eeyore, is the essence of negativity, typically described as pessimistic, gloomy and depressed.

Let us be clear that this discussion about negativity isn’t meant to include all incidents of disagreement or conflict. There is often valuable information that emerges from a difference of opinion: someone’s reminder to us of a possible negative consequence of an action allows us to consider additional safeguards as part of an initiative (for example, someone’s comment that ‘we’re never going to get this proposal in on time’, may lead to us adding more resources). A conflict may yield information about diverse points of view that allow us to see different angles to a complex problem or a different way of doing things (for example, an argument between two people about whose role it is to manage a particular team or function may be an indication that the organization has grown and old roles and processes need to be refitted.)

As managers we want to consider the causes of negativity and determine how to deal with it:

First, be self-reflective; is the person’s negativity justified?

I once had a staff member who always looked for reasons to miss staff meetings. There were multiple impacts resulting from his absence: he had a valuable contribution to make that we missed; where actions were decided I spent time in follow-up meetings with him to be sure he knew his responsibility; and, as long as I did nothing about it, staff were learning that this behaviour was acceptable – either for him getting special preference, or for their future behaviour.

It wasn’t until I was at a dental appointment, and the hygienist, on asking where I worked, shared with me that another patient who worked at the same place told her he would rather be at the dentist than be at a staff meeting. ‘Ouch’, I said, and it wasn’t because the dental procedure had caused me pain. I endeavored to change the way I engaged staff in the meeting so they could realize value from their investment of time.

Second, deal with the negative behaviour

Type 1: Predicting everything will end in the worst possible outcome

How the negativity might be helpful: It is a reminder to hope for the best outcome but to be prepared for the worst.

What to do: Acknowledge the value of the input and plan the appropriate action to deal with it. If the person keeps raising the issue even after it has been adequately dealt with, do a quick reminder of the action that was taken and move on so you and staff do not get bogged down. If they still will not let you move the discussion on, tell them you will discuss it one-on-one with them after the meeting. Follow-up to let them know their ongoing pessimism is not allowing them to make the positive contribution you also need from them.

Type 2: Looking at the glass as half empty rather than half full. This refers to the tendency to focus on weaknesses and what has not worked in the past or won’t work in the future.

How the negativity might be helpful: There are often elements of truth in every half empty glass: for example, skills that are not present that need to be developed, lessons to be learned from past failures.

What to do: Take comments from staff that address these issues and ask them to turn them into goals, ‘what do we need to do differently this time to be successful?’

Type 3: Behaviour that is dismissive of others;  for example rolling eyes when someone else is talking at a meeting.

How the negativity might be helpful: This behaviour is never helpful. I had someone who did this tell me they were just trying to be funny.

What to do: Take action at the meeting, saying, ‘you seem to have a reaction to what Mary said, do you have a specific comment or question about it?’ After the meeting, meet with the person one-on-one to share that behaviours like ‘rolling the eyes’ are often perceived as being disrespectful, and get in the way of making a constructive contribution to the discussion.

Type 4: Absence and withdrawal; for example not attending meetings or work events

How the negativity might be helpful?: It might feel helpful in the short term as the person’s absence removes a possible source of tension for you at the meeting. However, in the long term it sets a norm that avoidance or withdrawal is acceptable. That will result in other issues for you to deal with down the road.

What to do: Meet with the person one-on-one a week before the next meeting to ask for their input to the agenda and the way the meeting is working. Be sure to listen to their point of view to consider improvement for them as well as to others at the staff meeting. And be sure to share with them why you need their input at the meeting.

In conclusion, small, timely actions will prevent negative behaviour from festering and escalating tensions at work. If you are dealing with a problem of negativity that has already grown over time, take a deep breath and start dealing with each occurrence. Over time you will see the potential benefits.

Consider, Eeyore is a cartoon character who served a positive role among his friends in sustaining his pessimistic attitude. This dynamic, however, doesn’t work well in the work environment. Some of your staff may have negative behaviours, give them feedback and support so they can play a constructive role on the team.

What tips do you have to deal with negativity?