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Managing an employee whose negativity at work is infecting everyone else

Misery loves company

Do you have a member of your team who casts a pall of gloom over the whole office? Who moans, loudly and at length, about anything and everything?

Who thinks customers are there to make his life a misery? Who likes to tell all and sundry that the latest initiative won’t work and will make everyone’s lives more difficult?

Left unchecked, this negativity can spread through a team quicker than a bout of norovirus.

So what’s the reason behind this negativity at work and how can you fix it?

Why does one person’s negativity affect everyone else?

Having a bad apple in the office might be something you could just put up with. If it wasn’t for the fact that, like bad apples, they tend to infect everyone else in their vicinity with their negativity.

Why is it so easy for usually positive people to be brought low by their miserable colleague?

Because we’re social animals. Evolutionally-speaking, we are designed to seek the support and security of others. We look to others to reinforce our sense of self and by observing how other people behave we determine what behaviour is expected of us. ‘What,’ we wonder, ‘do I need to do to fit in here?’

If negativity is being expressed loudly and consistently, others will tune into that, take it onboard and start express it themselves. And before you know it, you got a negativity epidemic on your hands.

How can you nip the negativity in the bud?

Just as you can’t tackle a virus with antibiotics, there is no easy cure for a negative employee.

The first step is to recognise that no one sets out to be miserable at work. In fact, no one sets out to be miserable, full stop.

So, if this misery is not inevitable, it’s clear that our next step is to find out the underlying cause.

Which is likely to be either personal or situational.

1. Personal – something in this individual’s personality, past or personal life is driving their negative behaviour

While this person wasn’t born miserable, something in their personality, their past or their personal life could be making them miserable now.

Often, this issue stems from low self-esteem. It might not seem like this person suffers from low self-esteem. After all, they appear to have no problem expressing their opinion as if it’s fact or undermining other people’s ideas.

Sometimes those with low self-esteem use attack as a the best form of defence. They might see themselves as a victim, that everyone’s out to get them.

Trouble is, they may not realise this about themselves. Whether it’s an attitude hardwired into their personality or down to something that happened in their past, they’ve trained their brain to view the world through a negative filter. To tune into those things that support their worldview and ignore the evidence that proves them wrong.

What can you do to help someone with low self-esteem?

The quick answer is, not a lot.

The only person that can tackle their self-esteem is the individual concerned. They need to take ownership of the issue and recognise that how they respond to a situation they find difficult or stressful is in their hands. You might want to share my article on taming our reptile brains with them.

If the situation warrants it, perhaps consider paying for some counselling or other support. One of my clients did this for her emotional staff member, reasoning that anything was better than the status quo.

But your influence may be limited.

The only thing you have any control over is how you respond to their behaviour at work. Be clear about the behaviour you expect. If their response to a stressful customer call is to kick off the minute they’ve hung up the phone, encourage them to find alternative tactics that work for them. Perhaps taking a walk around the block, talking to a buddy in the office, or practising some mindfulness techniques.

2. Or Situational – something in the workplace situation is making this individual miserable

Is this individual’s misery confined to office hours? Do they virtually skip out of the place the minute it turns five? Are they perfectly positive outside work?

If so, then it may not be a personality issue at all. It’s likely to be more about the job/organisation itself. Put simply, something at work is making them unhappy.

Your job is to find out what.

The first point of call is their manager. Because nine times out of ten, it is the relationship with the line manager that is at the root of employee misery.

Are you their manager? What is your relationship like? What could be improved?

Feel confident that this isn’t the issue?

Is the problem the work itself? Do they find it boring? Do they have the right skills to do the job? Are they being motivated in the right way for them?

Are you playing to their strengths [link to strengths blog]? Do you know what their strengths are? Do they?

What could you do to change the job or their position that would make it a happier place for them?

Try to work in collaboration with them to identify the root cause of their problem and identify an action plan where you both take steps to addressing the issue.

Tackling a negativity epidemic

By not tackling negativity at its source, it can start to appear – to both the negative employee and the rest of the team – that this behaviour is ok. It becomes a team norm. That’s when negativity starts to escalate.

If your team’s got to this stage, you need to be really clear about what acceptable and unacceptable behaviour looks like. For instance, ‘sniping is not acceptable behaviour. What we want to see is .…’

The best approach is to do this as a team and agree an acceptable behaviour contract that everyone signs up to.

By replacing the negative behaviour with positive behaviours, and by encouraging (and rewarding) the behaviour you want to see, you can start to create an epidemic of positivity instead.

It will also help if you can work on improving the cohesiveness of the team. So that rather than people forming little cliques, there’s more of a sense of a larger team that they’re all valued members of, working together and supporting each other.

My five step prescription for a happy workplace

In summary, here are the five key steps to tackling negativity at work:

  • Recognise that no one sets out to be miserable in their work life
  • Find out the underlying cause – is it personal or situational?
  • If it’s personal – offer support and be clear about expectations
  • If it’s situational – investigate the relationship with their manager. If that’s not the problem, look at what might be bothering them about their job. Recognise they might not always know themselves.
  • Be clear about what’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for the whole team and undertake some team-building activity to bring everyone closer together.

Need some help tackling this in your team? Then drop me an email to book in a no-commitment chat.

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