Your workplace is seething with hostility and negativity. No matter where the bad vibes came from, it's up to you to help make the atmosphere more positive, productive and supportive. As a manager, supervisor, or staff member, you usually do not control the situation that is causing the negativity. Perhaps no one in your workplace does. How you address negativity depends on whether you control it and how it started in the first place. The timeliness of your intervention also has an impact.
Tips for Managing Workplace Negativity discussed how to prevent negativity from occurring in the first place. In this article, I’ll describe how you can address negativity when it is already present in your workplace. Addressing negativity prevents workplace violence, promotes workplace safety, and creates positive employee morale.
When You Can Control or Influence the Negativity
This is a best case scenario. You have received feedback about negative rumors and you know that the underlying cause of the negativity is based on faulty information, incorrect assumptions, or deliberate misinformation. You may receive feedback that a new policy or procedure is not understood correctly. People may be misinterpreting a corporate memo.
An industry newsletter might have referenced an industry problem your company does not share. You may have fired an individual who is circulating false information about the company. In each of these circumstances, you have some control over the information, the situation, and the communication. You can solve the problem and communicate well to overcome the negativity.
When you can control or influence the situation, use a systematic problem-solving process with the affected employees to improve the identified areas of negativity. Do this as quickly as you determine that negativity exists. (Many Human Resources offices launch a complete investigation, and by the time the facts are gathered, the negativity is out of control. )
Include the employees who are closest to the negative situation in the problem-solving process. Do a good cause analysis so that all possible causes of the negativity are identified. It is not enough to say, “We have low morale.” You need to identify exactly what is causing the low morale to have any chance of improving it. Solicit widespread input to each step of the action plan you develop so that solutions are “owned” across your organization. Involve as many people as you can in its development and particularly in its implementation. Implement the chosen solutions quickly. Then, periodically assess that the plan is working.
At each step of the problem-solving process, communicate as much information as you have about the negativity and the solutions. When the solutions selected in the action plan are rolled out, people in the organization are not surprised. They have participated in the information exchange as each step or opportunity was discussed.
Negativity often occurs when people are impacted by decisions and issues that are out of their control. Examples of these include: corporation downsizing; understaffing that requires people to work mandatory overtime; budget reductions; and upper-management decisions that adversely impact members of your staff.
Under these circumstances, try some of the following ideas.
- Identify any aspects of the situation that you can impact including providing feedback in your organization about the negative impact that is occurring. (Sometimes decisions are made and no one understands or predicts their outcome. Sometimes you can influence an issue or a decision if you practice personal, professional courage and speak your mind.
- Listen, listen, listen. Often people just need a sounding board. Be visible and available to staff. Proactively schedule group discussion sessions, town meetings, "lunches with the manager," or one-on-one blocks of time.
- Challenge pessimistic thinking and negative beliefs about people, the company, and the work area. Don't let negative, false statements go unchallenged.If the statements are true, provide the rationale, the corporate thinking, and the events that are responsible for the negative circumstances. Share everything you know about a situation to build trust with the workforce.
- Ask open-ended questions to determine the cause, and the scope of the negative feelings or reaction. Maybe it's not as bad as people think; maybe their interpretation of events is faulty. Helping people identify exactly what they feel negatively about is the first step in solving the problem. You can't solve a fog of unhappiness. Help people create options, feel included, and feel part of the communication and problem solving. (Do all of the items mentioned in Tips for Minimizing Workplace Negativity.)
- Recognize that, sometimes, a negative outlook may be appropriate.
If the negativity emanates from an individual, you can:
- Inform the employee about the negative impact her negativity is having on co-workers and the department. Use specific examples that describe behaviors the employee can do something about.
- Avoid becoming defensive. Don’t take the employee’s negative words or attitude personally.
- Focus on creating solutions. Don’t focus on everything that is wrong and negative; focus instead on creating options for positive morale. If the person is unwilling to hold this discussion, and you feel you have fairly heard her out, end the discussion.
- Focus on the positive aspects and contributions the individual brings to the work setting, not the negativity. Help the employee build her self-image and capacity to contribute.
- Compliment the individual any time you hear a positive statement or contribution rather than negativity from her.
If none of the above is working and the employee’s negativity is impacting productivity, workplace harmony, and department members’ attitudes and morale, deal with the negativity as you would any other performance issue.
Recognize Your Potential Part in the Negativity Cycle
- Recognize that you are human and occasionally experience situations in which you must uphold decisions you don't entirely support. You don't want to contribute to the negativity by your words, actions, non-verbal behavior, or voice. Yet, you want to act authentically so you are trustworthy and credible.
- Know yourself well enough to recognize internally when you are becoming negative.
- Become aware of work situations in which you typically find yourself becoming defensive or negative. Because you are aware of them, try to recognize when you are reacting and avoid your typical negative reaction. (Some people figure out exactly how to get you going and push your "hot buttons" deliberately, so to speak.)
- Take a time-out or walk away by yourself when you have dealt with a stressful situation.
- Spend some time alone thinking every day about the positive aspects of your work and life. You don't want to spend all of your time on negative thinking. If there is nothing positive to think about, examine the life you are choosing to create.
- Treat yourself with care. Don't beat yourself up or second-guess yourself over decisions or mistakes. You are human. You learn; you grow. Focus on the big picture; don't get bogged down in the day-to-day.
Recognize that the only thing you are truly in charge of is how you choose to react to and in any situation. I trust that these ideas will help you in addressing the negativity in your workplace.
As always, your thoughts and additional ideas are always welcome. Please share them in the HR Forum so a broader group of people can benefit from your thinking.