No matter how carefully you pick the members on your team, you may still end up with a negative employee. These workers don’t necessarily fall into the category of "toxic," but they’re just kind of a drag with their cynical, pessimistic worldview.
Managing negative employees requires its own set of skills and approaches, says David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources consultancy OperationsInc. And while the best course of action will vary depending on the situation’s specifics, this dynamic shouldn’t be ignored, because it can affect culture and the morale of your other employees, he says.
If you’re dealing with a negative employee, here are six steps to take.
If a person simply has a sour disposition but it’s not preventing them or others from doing their job well, you probably don’t need to address it, says David Dye, author of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul and president of Trailblaze, Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm. However, if the person’s negativity is compromising their strengths—for example, the brilliant data analyst’s work goes unused because everyone avoids him—then it’s important to address it, Dye says.
"Many behaviors get labeled as negative—even quiet introverts can be called negative when they’re really just reflective and shy," Dye says. Are you really dealing with someone who’s negative, or are you dealing with someone who’s quiet? Some coworkers are very analytical and respond to new ideas by pointing out flaws or potential challenges. Such behavior may be seen as negative by more outgoing, idea-generating colleagues, he adds. However, the differences may be more in communication styles, especially when analytical people are in problem-solving mode. Fostering understanding of these different styles may improve the workplace for everyone.
If you decide to proceed in addressing the behavior, think about whether there have been behavior changes recently, advises Kelly O’Connell, vice president in charge of hiring and retention at IT staffing solutions company Irvine Technology Solutions. Is the negativity a constant or has the behavior escalated? If the latter, was there an event that led up to the change? "Individuals in the workplace live multi-dimensional lives, and other non-workplace stressors may impact work productivity and mood," she says.
Being supportive of stressors that lead to negativity can have benefits, too. In an April 2016 report in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, a team of Toronto researchers found that employees who are cynical of their workplace may feel more positive if their managers are supportive.
When discussing the situation with your negative employee, Dye recommends framing the discussion in the context of the individual’s goals. "If the employee wants to have more influence or a leadership position, you need to know that in order to help them grow," he says.
"Tone policing," where you simply point out pessimistic commentary without addressing the root cause, rarely works and may just cause more resentment, O’Connell says. Get to the root of the issue and find out if the employee needs additional training, perhaps in management or communication skills, to overcome a deficit.
Lewis says that a direct, solutions-oriented conversation with the employee can uncover problems or circumstances driving the behavior. If there are workplace issues that can be solved, consider doing so if it makes sense. If there are personal issues that have caused an escalation in negative behavior, examine whether accommodations can be made to help the person while they’re going through such challenges. Some employees don't have great interpersonal skills, and putting them in jobs where they are more focused on job-related tasks than on interactions with others can be an effective solution, too.
"Most people in a company will want to work in the most positive work environment possible, and many people in any given organization will have great ideas to offer on how to achieve that goal if management takes the time to ask and listen," O’Connell adds.
As you address the issues of one employee, O’Connell advises looking at big-picture solutions that can make your culture more pleasant overall. Adopt an open-door work environment in which employees have safe, convenient channels to express negative grievances, provide employees with free or subsidized employee-assistance program access, or a vacation and leave program where it is safe for them to occasionally adapt their schedules to their needs, she says. Work on positive reinforcement as well. For example, find an area of contribution where a negative employee shines, and focus more of that employee’s work in that area to maximize their contribution.
Negative employees can be a drag, but understanding the reasons for their behavior and finding ways to address them can create a better environment for everyone.