Lose the Negativity

I once shared cubicle space with a new guy in my office who was incredibly negative and cynical immediately upon his arrival. At first I thought he was just cranky after moving here from overseas, and having to find a house and get his furniture moved here and get his kids registered for school and all those little details (well, actually, pretty big details). But even after doing all that stuff he was still just as bad…worse, actually, as he then started complaining about work, too.

A negative atmosphere can absolutely destroy the spirit of your organization. People who spend all their time focused on negative things do not have time to focus on productive stuff, like, say, doing their work. Too much of their brainpower gets focused on what is wrong, and not enough is used to develop new ideas. It is as if, instead of driving down a highway toward their destination, they’re driving down an old dirt road in a different direction, with no real interest in getting anywhere special. You cannot afford that; as a business leader, you need your employees focused on doing their jobs to the best of their ability.

It is not just a matter of their own reduced creativity and productivity. One individual can poison your working environment. So what do you do if you have a perpetually negative person, especially if you are starting to see the eye-rolling and hear the snide remarks about them from co-workers? One popular idea is to try to change their attitude by drawing out positive contributions from them, asking them directly for ideas in meetings and trying to get them to offer up something worthwhile. This can have a temporary effect…they will answer direct questions but as soon as you are done with them they can go back to their old ways. A better option is to get with them one-on-one, let them know what kind of effect they are having, and try to discover the root of the problem. It could be they have no idea they are doing it, and by raising it with them in a private, non-confrontational way you might get them to think about it and consciously try to change. It could just be that their personality is negative by default, and nothing you can do will change it…in that case, you are either going to have to live with it or let them go, your choice. Or it might be that there is a major problem in their life – maybe the subject of their negative remarks, or maybe something else they’re trying to keep private – and they can use some help addressing it. This last point is where real leadership comes into play; you really need to take care of your people, and sometimes the things that affect their work life the most are outside of the job entirely, so you may have to do some careful digging. If this is the case, and there is something else going on that is leading to their negativity, then you will be doing them and yourself a great service by figuring out what that is.

As you watch for problems in your employees be sure to watch for them in yourself, too. As a leader, you will set the tone for your organization. It is easy to find plenty of things to complain about, but that does not mean you should. Instead, try to deal with problems discreetly without broadcasting them to everyone. If you find yourself getting upset, go off by yourself to think about it and calm down. Lots of people rely on negativity as the primary basis for conversation (what someone once called the “ain’t it awful” syndrome). Don’t be that person.

None of this is to say there is never a time to complain, or to suggest you should be some kind of Pollyanna who smiles artificially all the time and then goes home and kicks the dog out of frustration. There is a time and a place for complaining or for voicing your concerns about something, but it should not be constant, as it was with my co-worker. If you find yourself or an employee only saying negative things and never anything positive, then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. Learn to manage your negative feelings and deal with them in a way that does not hurt your working environment.

Your employees need to be able to think. They need their minds open to new possibilities and they need to be able to focus on what can be done rather than on what cannot or on what is not working right. That is tough to do if they or someone around them is consistently polluting the air with complaint after complaint after complaint.

Or am I complaining too much about this?