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Purging Workplace Negativity


All people have reason to become negative about their work or their organization occasionally. But when negativity becomes a habit for you, your team members, or the entire organization, it dramatically affects productivity and profitability.
By: Gary S. Topchik
All people have reason to become negative about their work or their organization occasionally. But when negativity becomes a habit for you, your team members, or the entire organization, it dramatically affects productivity and profitability.

Negativity is a virus that spreads rapidly from one person to another. Individuals can bring the virus to work or catch it from others in the organization. The negativity virus can spread quickly in a matter of days or weeks, and once transmitted, it is difficult to cure.

The effects of negativity are devastating to any organization and can lead to increased turnover, lateness, absenteeism, customer complaints, errors, accidents, and illness, all resulting in deep bottom-line costs. But managers can and must address the virus — their organization's business depends on it. Based on my research, negativity costs American organizations millions, if not billions, of dollars each year.

Communicating Negativity
Negativity is an attitude we communicate at work in three ways:

  1. Verbally. We may say things such as "Bad idea — it will never work," or "This is such a terrible place to work," or "I am the one who gets paid around here to think, not you."

  2. Vocally. We can whine, yell, be sarcastic, or speak inaudibly.

  3. Visually. We can frown, avoid eye contact, or use inappropriate gestures.

    Not all individuals express or show negativity the same way. Dozens of types of negativists exist.

    • The Steamrollers. When they become negative, they get angry and hostile, taking out their frustrations on others. They come across as being tyrannical, autocratic, and dictatorial.

    • The Ice People. These are the resisters of change. They like things the way they are or were and become negative when you try to get them to do something differently. They usually do not openly express their resistance. They may even say the change is good and then not implement it or, worse, sabotage the change.

    • The Rumormongers. They take out their negativity toward work or other people by spreading rumors. They sense a loss of control regarding their environments, and passing along or creating rumors helps them regain a sense of control.

    • The Scapegoaters. They cannot take responsibility for their own mistakes or for the negative situations that they find themselves in. They shift the blame to others.

    • The Eggshells. They are our very sensitive people. The slightest thing said to them, if misconstrued, causes them to crack. Once they crack, they become negative.

    • The Micros. When they are in their negative moods, they focus on the smallest, most unimportant details. If they are managers, they drive their people crazy.

    • The Pessimists. When they are negative, they believe the world is an unpleasant place, and they do everything possible to make it so for themselves and for others.

Confronting Negativists
When an employee's negativity becomes pervasive, leaders have no choice but to confront it and hold the negativist accountable for changing his or her behavior. If we do not do this, we give the message that negative behavior is acceptable. Quite often, negativists do not even realize that they are coming across negatively at work. It is best for the supervisor of a negativist manager to confront the individual, but I also have seen team members quite successfully address it. Three confrontation steps can help:

  1. Specifically identify the negative behavior and its business impact. If there is no impact, there is no problem. Remember to give concrete examples.

  2. Wait for a response. This is the person's opportunity to either own up or explain the reasons for the negative behavior. The person may have legitimate reasons for his or her actions.

  3. Identify alternative, more positive ways to behave. Wise managers will assign the negativist with the task of coming up with this action plan. If the person cannot, though, you need to. The individual must be held accountable for changing the negative behavior.

I once worked with an executive director in Los Angeles who had the most innovative strategy for purging negativity from his agency. He hired actors to play the role of employees and told them to be the most positive and optimistic individuals possible. After a few weeks his negativists caught the positivity bug.

Keep in mind that the main reasons to confront an individual's negativity are to help out the employee, help other people affected by the person's negativity, and improve the organization's productivity.

Turning Negative into Positive
Managers can turn to many techniques to abate negativity. Many are short term, but they help you and others maintain a healthy attitude.

  • Play your winners. When someone is in a negative mood, he or she should have pictures of loved ones, friends, vacation trips, and other depictions of uplifting and warm moments in the office or workspace. Posting certificates, awards, or letters from a pleased customer on the walls is another way to play your winners.

  • 3, 2, 1…1, 2, 3. I have a colleague, Alex, who tends to be negative. He has a long list of everything that is not going well. I ask him to select the three worst things, then the two worst, and finally, the worst. By doing this, Alex focuses. When we are in a negative state of mind, we lose the ability to focus. This loss of clarity contributes to negativity. Then I ask Alex to come up with one aspect of his life that is fine, then two, then three. The "3, 2, 1 … 1, 2, 3" approach changes the thinking paradigm from negative to positive.

  • Set a time limit. It is okay to be negative from time to time — but give yourself or others a time limit. Tell yourself or staff members that they can be as negative as they want to on the way to work, but as soon as they walk into the building, the negativity stops. Another suggestion is to let staff express their negativity for the first five minutes of a meeting and then allow only neutral or positive discussion.

  • Turn on a tape recorder. Have your negative team members speak into a tape recorder for a few minutes when they are in one of their negative moods. They will be astonished at how awful they sound. They soon will change their tone of voice and their choice of words.

  • Take a timeout. Get colleagues who are in danger of going into negative states to take a timeout and remove themselves from the negative situation. Five or ten minutes away can do wonders and keep that person in a positive mindset.

  • Incorporate IQT — individual quiet time. Spending 20 minutes or so each day alone — at work or at home, without any distractions — thinking of pleasant experiences and places — can result in significant mood changes.

  • Make merry. Anytime you can move someone who is being negative into a group of optimistic people, the negative behavior is bound to diminish dramatically. Done regularly, the negative person begins to develop the behaviors and attitudes of the optimists. If optimists are difficult to find in your organization, recommend that the negativist surround herself with optimistic people outside of work. The same attitude transference will take place this way as well.

Dealing with Organizational Negativity
While working with agencies and organizations where negativity is rampant, I have found that certain conditions (or causes) exist. When these conditions are addressed and remedied, the negativity lessens considerably. It is up to the top leadership to recognize these conditions and develop remedies. I have never seen an organization transform from a negative culture to a more positive one without the active support of top management. Here are five major conditions that lead to organizational negativity.

  1. Change not implemented well. Change is constant, and unless organizations change, they will not be productive and will not survive. Individuals normally resist change, even good change, which means that we cannot blame staff for their hesitation. But if we do not reduce this resistance, negativity increases. Thus, I advise the following:

    • Communicate throughout the change process the reasons for the change and how the targets of the change will benefit.

    • Train individuals about the change before or as it is being implemented.

    • Communicate the timetable for change, step by step.

    • Involve each person in the planning and implementation process. The people closest to the product or service know best; why not ask them?

    • Give individuals positive feedback for adapting to the new change, and celebrate milestones and successes.

  2. A history of punishing excellent performers and rewarding poorer ones. This sounds crazy, but organizations and managers do it every day and wonder why so much negativity exists in their workplaces. Excellent performers are punished when we give them more work to do, the same work, because they do it better and faster than anyone else. They get punished when we do not allow them to go to that training class or take time off because we need them too much. They get punished when we do not promote them because we do not want to lose them from our groups. After a while they realize that it does not pay to be so great. They become disillusioned and negative. Poor performers are rewarded with less work, easier schedules, and the same salary as everyone else. And, of course, the biggest reward for the poor performer is the promotion! Managers just want them out of their groups. When we reward poor performers, we strongly irk the great ones and fuel their negativity even more.

  3. The absence of a learning environment. A learning environment occurs when an organization supports and rewards staff for learning and when staff becomes integral to the decision-making process that makes them part of the "brain" of the organization. Most people expect both of these elements at a learning organization. When either or both are missing, negativity sets in.

  4. A challenge to security or stability. If we do not provide reasonable working conditions, salaries, health coverage, benefits, job security, good supervision, and good interpersonal relationships — or we take them away — we run the risk of inviting negativity into our workplaces. If we overstress our staff with too much work or "understress" them with not enough, we also create a negative work environment. Organization leaders need to consider and question optimal workloads. When they do this, they are satisfying the basic needs of their staff.

  5. One-size-fits-all approaches to individual motivation. Managers need to discover the one or two things that would truly motivate their team members as individuals. Such information will help them create a positive work environment for each team member. The best, most expedient way is to ask the person. He or she will tell you. The usual motivators are accomplishment, visibility, new responsibilities, the work itself, praise and recognition, empowerment, decision making, and autonomy.

Attitude as Antidote
Very possibly, you might work in organizations that are slow to recognize the impact of negativity. If so, embrace the powers of a positive attitude; this will make you immune to the negativity virus. No matter how many negativists surround you in the workplace, you will remain upbeat and focused. Ask yourself if you have these powers:

  • A fun attitude that causes good things to happen;

  • A creative attitude that can see new possibilities;

  • An energizing attitude that triggers enthusiasm.

Then, ask your colleagues to answer the following four questions about you. If the answer is yes to all of them, you definitely have a positive mindset.

  1. Could you just show up for work and have fun if you decided to?

  2. Are you considerate of others and their points of view, and do you avoid using inappropriate facial expressions?

  3. Do you use positive words and expectations in conversation?

  4. Do your colleagues smile when they see you?

Negativity is a serious business issue that managers often recognize but don't know how to handle. Depending on personality characteristics, individuals express their negativity in many ways. Although staff members may have very good reasons for being negative at work, their negativity must be confronted. Fortunately, managers can turn to numerous coping strategies to temporarily subdue negative feelings — if they commit to do so and understand that they may need to try several approaches before finding one that works in their situation. The leadership of any organization is responsible for recognizing that negativity exists and must accept the need to address it. Finally, managers just acknowledge and adopt the powers of a positive attitude to keep themselves immune from this highly contagious virus.

Author Link: Gary S. Topchik is the managing partner of SilverStar Enterprises, a Southern California-based consulting firm specializing in management and leadership development, organizational change, team building, and executive coaching. Topchik has published many books, including Managing Workplace Negativity and, most recently, The Accidental Manager (AMACOM, 2003).

He also was named consultant of the year by the International Training and Development Federation. He can be reached at 310-276-5515 or

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