Are Negative Employees Hurting Your Team?

BY C. Lee Smith
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Negative employees can quickly cause discord on the team and weaken the loyalty and engagement managers have worked hard to build. Managers should address negativism quickly. To do so, they must:

  • Define the behavior of negative employees
  • Get to the root cause of the negative behavior
  • Use psychometric assessments 
  • Demonstrate and encourage acceptable workplace behavior

Define the behavior of negative employees

In every work setting, employees tend to form their own culture. For example, they may invite everyone to order lunch from a local restaurant and gather to enjoy the meal in the conference. But an employee who is feuding with a co-​worker may deliberately neglect to invite that co-​worker to the usual luncheon event. That mean-​spirited behavior clearly goes against the company culture.

Negative employees can exhibit other kinds of unacceptable behavior such as cutting people off who are speaking during a meeting. They may declare, in a group setting, that your idea for a new product will never work. Or the negative employees in your group may not be completing quality work on time.

Regardless of the cause, behavior that makes others feel unwelcome, threatened of unwanted violates acceptable standards in the workplace. If managers wait too long to talk with the offending employees, they risk losing good team members who won’t continue to put up with a workplace environment that causes stress.

Get to the Root Cause of the Negative Behavior

When dealing with an employee who is actively agitating everyone else, managers might be tempted to immediately put them on a performance plan. The next step, as we all know, is to get them out the door. Before you take that step, consider the situation from their perspective. You should be sure you understand exactly what is happening.

Start by asking what is causing the employee’s behavior. Could they be reacting to something you’ve done? Are they copying behavior you’ve modeled? You may have shown poor judgment in front of your team members. Or you argued with another department head or managers about a deadline.

Sometimes, negative behavior on your part indicates to your team members the range of acceptable actions. In his recent article on sabotaging business meetings, Jeff Haden points out specific activities highlighted by WWII spy agencies as the way to stall the enemy and decrease productivity. These activities include being obsessed about “precise wording of communications, minutes, and resolutions” or being worried about decisions you made in a previous meeting.

These behaviors will slow down your team and reveal insecurities about your ability to succeed in your position. Going forward, stay mindful about the actions and words you use to model the behavior you’d like to see from your team.

Use Psychometric Assessments 

In reviewing your negative employee’s behavior, study their psychometric assessment data for clues about what motivates them and the kind of work situations that might trouble them. And before talking with them, check in with other team members who appeared troubled by their actions. Soliciting input from co-​workers doesn’t mean you’re encouraging gossip or seeking reinforcement for your beliefs. You need to understand how other team members feel. To avoid influencing them, form your questions with neutral language instead of trying to assign blame.

Demonstrate and Encourage Acceptable Workplace Behavior

Talking with negative employees requires sensitivity and thoughtful strategy. Their psychometric assessments will reveal the communication style that works best when you’re suggesting change. Remember to highlight one of their recent actions that you found praiseworthy. And to prevent the employee from feeling singled out, you might want to share behaviors that you personally are trying to change.

Don’t expect negative employees to change overnight. During your initial meeting on this topic, try to get them to agree to work on behaviors that are damaging to the team and to their own careers. Challenge them to adjust one simple behavior at a time: It may be something like praising or complimenting a co-​worker every day. This step marks the start of real progress toward helping them become part of the team you need.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.