How to Handle Negative People on Your Team
Pessimists, skeptics, cynics and naysayers exist in every organization. Depending on the individual, negativity can manifest in different ways, from being an incessant complainer to exhibiting passive aggressive behavior. Some workers seem ready to block any change initiative or progressive measure, sending ripples of negativity throughout an organization. This drag on forward movement can make managers crazy.
It’s worth stating that all negativity isn’t equal – a dose of skepticism can lead people to question solutions that may be more idealistic than pragmatic. Jon Katzenbach, author of Wisdom of Teams says: “An irritating member adds a dimension to teaming. As long as he or she is not strong enough to derail progress, he or she may offer thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t come in.”
While skepticism can be helpful, too often it veers into a destructive force that prevents organizations from innovating. It zaps energy. We know from studies on mood contagion that one sour apple can depress the whole bunch. So how can leaders manage the habitually negative members of their team? Consider these ways to combat cynicism in your workplace:
Have a conversation with the naysayer.
More often than not, people aren’t even aware that they’re being negative. That’s why it can be helpful for leaders to pull the individuals involved aside and have a discussion about the perception of their behavior. Describe the effect their behavior is having on the team and how a more positive outlook could impact the workplace for the better.
In your discussion, ask the person to explain why they are feeling as they do. Be open minded and try to listen from a place of curiosity. Once you know the reasons behind the negativity, it’s easier to offer a fuller understanding to help the person expand their perspective. Ultimately you want the person to be rowing in the same direction as the team, and alleviating concerns can help them at least stop the drag on momentum.
Reframe negativity in a constructive manner.
If you notice an employee making negative comments, help them to restructure their commentary so it can be more constructive.
Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, suggests asking the individual to follow negative comments with “but” statements: “For example, your team member could say ‘This project is never going to make it past Finance, BUT it’s worth laying the groundwork now because next year, Finance is apt to approve more tech projects.”
Words have power, and if you can help someone to shape their narrative to find elements of positivity, then opinions may follow suit.
Model positive behavior.
Positivity within your team starts with you. Take a good hard look at your own behavior. Are you prone to be skeptical of team members’ input and ideas? Do you show frustration at the larger bureaucracy? Do you make knee-jerk negative comments from time to time?
If you find yourself being negative, then you are likely setting a poor model of behavior for the rest of your team. If the boss likes to complain, it’s a green light for everyone else to do the same.
Make positivity a company value.
Beyond role modelling, leaders set the tone of workplace conversations and set the boundaries for what’s tolerable. Consider establishing positivity as a primary value on your team.
While you want to encourage team members to be honest and open in their views, you can emphasize a strong preference for forward momentum and acceptance of new ideas. As Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There argues, “Honesty may be the best policy except when it’s destructive and unhelpful.”
Set positivity as a team norm, and then ask members to help each other live up to them. Peer pressure is more powerful than pressure from the top down.
Set standards for constructive disagreement.
Skeptics can become that way because there isn’t a productive way to channel disagreement. Make sure that there is a time and a place to voice thoughtful concerns, in a way that lets the group openly discuss them.
Ask your more critical workers to bring their best thoughts, and to pair them with alternative actions. It’s not enough to say “this won’t work,” but offer another option. It’s frustrating when skeptics only stop ideas rather than inputting new ones into the environment.
Find a way to channel negativity so it’s constructive, and you may find that even the skeptics can get behind your boldest change.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
Image credit: Ambro
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