Ajith, working as the sales manager in a small company wrote to me recently. He said, “There is a person I work with in my team who is really negative and constantly complaining. I find this very draining and it’s affecting me. How do I break the cycle?”
I think Ajith has already begun to break the cycle by recognizing that this situation is affecting him and by taking the action of writing in to ask for help. Knowingly or not, he has taken the first step in resolving the issue – awareness. Now it is a matter of time he will resolve his problem.
Let us turn to another common scenario. It’s a fresh, breezy morning and you are sprinting up to the office. But then your heart sinks almost immediately: The ‘negative-king’- as he is not-so-fondly termed, is standing there, waving to you. Already your morning has lost some of its cheer.
Negative co-workers love to talk trash about all company developments. They will denigrate the new copier being installed in the office and talk about how bringing in new dress code is futile. A senior manager’s motivational pep talk will be treated with great unkindness by this species. They will proceed to make a huge mockery of the event over the next few months—or even years—regardless of how foolish it makes them appear.
Add a coworker’s negative attitude to a long, stressful day, and you’ll be ready to burst by five o’clock. Absorbing too much negativity at the workplace can consume your emotional energy, decrease your productivity and sour your mood.
What causes employee negativity? A study conducted by Towers Perrin used a unique emotion-based research technique called Resonance, which captured participants’ spontaneous emotional responses to the total work experience.
The study found out five main reasons for most employee negativity:
Lack of challenge in their work, with boredom intensifying existing frustration about workload
Concerns about management’s ability to lead the company forward successfully
An excessive workload
Anxiety about the future, particular longer-term job, income and retirement security
Insufficient recognition for the level of contribution and effort provided and concerns that pay isn’t commensurate with performance
Knowing about these causes of employee negativity enables the higher management to take action to prevent or eliminate employee negativity. Let me give you two examples:
A team member leaves the office. His work is divided among the rest of the team. Employee negativity surfaces unless they are assured of a new employee within a specified period
An employee who applies for a promotional opportunity and does not get the job can be extremely negative, especially if promotional opportunities are perceived as limited
This is a snapshot of causes of employee negativity. If you can eliminate these five, you have gone a long way in the direction of building a positive, supportive work environment. You’ve minimized the potential for employee negativity.
Neds and Nellies
It’s difficult to deal with negative co-workers. You can get roped into sympatizing, even when you are not by nature negative and even when you don’t agree with your negative co-worker’s complaints.
Given enough access and enough time, a negative person will chip away your force field of optimism. You will end up joining the dark side. It’s likely you have seen this special kind of cancer spread by contact. You have to protect your optimism. You also have to protect your relationships with your co-workers. How do you handle the negative complainer that sits one desk away from you?
You know these negative Neds and Nellies – every organisation has some – and you can best address their impact on you via simple steps.
One of the best tactics for dealing with a negative co-worker is to say nothing. Just let them talk without saying a single word. The longer you allow them to talk without saying a word—positive or negative—the sooner your complaining co-worker will run out of steam. It’s feeding the negativity with a conversation that validates the negativity and the complaining. Silence starves negativity. Engaging in a dialogue around complaints and negativity only sustains the negativity.
Understand his complaint
When the complaining co-worker finally insists that you contribute something to the conversation, the only contribution you should make is to confirm your understanding of how they feel. You might say: “It sounds like you are really unhappy about the sales incentive plan.”
You don’t argue with your co-worker, because doing so only causes them to continue his complaints and to entrench him deeper in his negativity. You make no judgment about his complaints or what he describes as the source of his negativity, real or imagined.
Redirect him towards resolution
The best way to deal with negativity from co-workers is to redirect their energy (when it’s possible). After you have listened patiently and ensured that understood how they feel, you can say: “What are your ideas about how you might be able to get a better result here? How can I help you with this?” A negative person will complain about ten things all at once. You might have to say: “You seem unhappy with a lot of things. Is there one of these that you believe you need some help with first, and do you have any ideas about how you might go about making some of these things better?”
A truly negative person really doesn’t want your help. He wants you to join them and wallow in his negativity. He wants you with him so he can validate his negativity. If you are dealing with someone that isn’t a truly negative person, your questions about how to make things better will encourage them to exercise their resourcefulness. If there is really an issue that can be resolved, you can encourage them to take action, and maybe you can help them.
If all else fails, excuse yourself from the conversation
Maybe your co-worker is a force for darkness and pessimism. Maybe they’re not sincerely interested in trying to resolve their complaints. If the prior steps lead you to this conclusion, you can politely and professionally excuse yourself from the conversation.
You can say something like this: “I am so sorry to hear you are struggling with this. I find that getting bogged down in these kinds of discussions without working towards some resolution really ruins my attitude. I’m worthless for the rest of the day. But, if you have any ideas that might make things better, let me know how I can help. I’m here if you need me.”
Negativity on the newcomer
The power of the negative co-worker intensifies when a newcomer arrives at the office. Fresh and impressionable, the newcomer finds a welcoming smile on this co-worker’s face and wonders why the others are not so enthusiastic about this kind person.
Then the negative co-worker tells the newcomer about how the company is going through “difficult times” and is not likely to survive another financial year. If the new recruit has doubts, she should pay attention to the fact that the air-conditioners are not cooling enough or that the defective copier has not yet been replaced.
If the negative co-worker is determined, the newcomer will never get a chance to find her feet; she will move on to a new job as soon as possible.
Negativity from co-workers that affect others could be a behavioural issue that will need to be addressed. If you have done all you can and the situation hasn’t changed then it may be time to consider whether you are willing to stay in the current environment. Look after your needs and expectations and make decisions that will be good for you and your wellbeing.