What to Do About Mr. Negativity

March 17, 2017
Lesley Miller By Lesley Miller

Every organization has a Mr. (or Ms.) Negativity. Symptoms can include sour facial expressions, eye-rolling, a pessimistic outlook, cynical commentary, disruptive office gossip, unexplained absenteeism and poor work performance.

Just how serious is this diagnosis, you ask? Ever heard the expression, “People are hired for their skills, but terminated for their behavior”? Enough said.

Unfortunately, negativity can be highly contagious. Acute cases can even impact your customers. While there’s no vaccine, we’ve outlined a few tips to treat the condition and help protect your workplace from a full-blown outbreak.

#1: Don’t ignore it.

Negativity must be addressed, whether the behavior is uncharacteristic of the employee or becoming a pattern. And the more immediate the feedback, the better. For example, if Mr. Negativity makes an appearance at a staff meeting, casually pull him aside afterward in a confidential setting and have a conversation. Use concrete examples and make sure to articulate the present or possible impact of the negative behaviors. Often, employees don’t realize how others may perceive their comments and non-verbal cues. In these instances, an employee may simply need coaching on how to rephrase things or how to better manage their facial expressions. Provide suggestions for improvement, but remember to offer praise for the positives, too. Recognizing an individual’s strengths and successes can help better frame constructive feedback. However, if you sense the problem runs deeper, move to tip #2.

#2: Get to the root of the problem. 

Everyone has a bad day now and then, but for Mr. Negativity, every day is a glass-half-empty kind of day. The consistent negativity is often a sign of a disengaged employee, so it’s important to understand what’s really going on. Try asking a series of open-ended questions to get the employee talking. Examples include:

  • Why do you think you reacted that way?
  • What do you attribute that to?
  • Why do you feel that way?
  • What are some solutions?
  • Why/how do you think that will help?

Not only will this approach help uncover the real source of the problem, but it will also help the employee define the solution. The problem may be something workplace-related you can help address (e.g., feeling overworked, a lack of recognition, not feeling “heard,” struggling with change, etc.). However, the negativity may also be caused by a personal issue you can’t fix. Could the employee be experiencing legal or financial issues? Is he or she dealing with child care or elderly parent health-related issues? Either way, by understanding the problem you can work with the employee to create a realistic action plan.

#3: Leverage your resources.

As part of your problem resolution plan, know what resources are available to you and your employee.

For example, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great resource for helping employees deal with a variety of issues that can manifest as negativity in workplace. Financial stress, relationship issues, childcare issues, work-life balance struggles, caregiver burnout, anger management, substance use and grief can all be addressed within the scope of a good EAP.

Not only is an EAP a helpful resource for employees, but it can also be an invaluable source of supervisor support. EAPs offer expert consultation around problematic employee and workplace issues, guidance around documenting behaviors, and coaching on how to effectively confront and manage a difficult employee. Finally, most EAPs offer ongoing follow-up and compliance reporting on cases referred for performance improvement.

Finally, if negativity or general employee disengagement seem to be a company-wide issue, an EAP can assist with climate surveys, teambuilding activities, leadership development and other organizational development strategies.

#4: Articulate performance improvement goals and an expected timeframe.

If Mr. Negativity’s behaviors are interfering with his work product and affecting the team, you may consider implementing a performance improvement plan. If you pursue that path, know your desired outcome and clearly outline your expectations and a timeline for improvement. Provide the necessary resources and support, conduct regular check-ins and keep track of the employee’s progress. Again, remember to offer praise and celebrate successes along the way. Help Mr. Negativity understand the impact his behavior not only makes on the workplace, but also how constant negativity can inadvertently steer future behavior down a self-destructive and unproductive path.

In today’s competitive marketplace, there’s no room for Mr. Negativity. Empower your leaders with the skills and resources they need to appropriately and effectively intervene before negativity and its many side effects pollute your workplace. For more guidance on how to handle complex workplace issues like this, contact us.

If you found this post interesting, you might like: What If Mr. (or Ms.) Negativity Is Your Boss?

Lesley Miller

By Lesley Miller, BHS Vice President, Business Development

With over 16 years of extensive experience consulting on employee assistance programs (EAPs) for BHS, Lesley continues to develop concrete solutions for organizations across various industries and sizes. Through her involvement and dedication, she provides valuable insight on how BHS’ EAP programs can be effective and impactful for organizations and individuals.