How to Navigate Negativity in the Workplace [Strategies from HR Pros]

June 8, 2020

A negative attitude in the workplace is detrimental to employee morale, productivity, and outlook.

If it isn’t addressed early on, it can have an insidious effect on company culture.

It’s vital to keep your eyes and ears open to signs of negativity to minimize the long-term consequences it can bring to the workplace. The key is discovering ways to strategically combat it. Take a look at these insightful tips on managing negativity in the workplace from HR professionals.

How Can I Manage Negative Attitudes at Work?

Whether it’s a bad-tempered boss or gossiping colleagues, these bad attitudes at work can take a toll on your employees. By taking on the right strategies and having the courage to take a stand, you can effectively tackle these issues and foster a positive work environment.

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1. Diagnose the Problem

Though we might feel compelled to sweep negative attitudes under the rug, it’s important to encounter them head-on. This requires asking yourself and your employees, “What is the root cause of this negativity?”

Confrontations are never easy, but it’s important to have an open and honest conversation with employees who exhibit a negative attitude. Before having a discussion, reflect on the following questions to help you initiate a more thoughtful and productive conversation:

  • Is the company upholding its mission and values to support our staff?
  • As an HR professional, am I implementing effective strategies that fuel a safe and positive work environment?
  • Is there anything within the organization that may be causing this negativity to take shape?

It’s essential to approach employees with a good balance of honesty and empathy, says Amir Fathizadeh, author and personal as well as business coach of Coaching Collaborative: “It is important that questions be in the realm of the employee’s world . . . An employee needs to be understood, and if the questions are caring, compassionate, and empathetic, then they will respond authentically.”

Moreover, loss of confidence, control, or community due to personal circumstances can play a large role in brewing negative attitudes. Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO at Chargebacks911, advises that managers be conscientious about this: “Remember that there may be underlying personal matters affecting someone’s attitude, and you will need to be understanding of the situation without ignoring their behavior.”

So how do you confront employees about their negativity?

  • Be inclusive. Use words like “we.” For example: “We feel like your attitude has changed over the course of the month.” Avoid using “you,” since this directs blame and can make employees feel singled out.
  • Be specific. Don’t just say, “We don’t like your attitude.” This won’t create a very productive discussion. Instead, say something like: “Raising your voice to your coworker in front of others is causing a lot of tension in the office.” By expressing how their actions are affecting those around them, this can help initiate a more open and effective conversation.
  • Stay focused on results. Don’t make it personal, otherwise, this might make them feel like they’re being attacked. Instead, tie in how their attitude can help develop a promising outlook in their career. Use phrases such as: “I want to bring this up because we want to encourage you to identify the issue and thrive in your role here.”
  • Stay positive. Be sure to explain how changing their attitude and perspective can help them grow in their role moving forward. This also ties in with being results-oriented. If you have an employee who is being lazy, you can tell them: “Taking more initiative on some of your tasks can help the team achieve their goal of bringing in [XX] dollars of revenue for [client].” You can also recall times when they were positive and engaged.

Take time to listen to your employees explain their situation. But, be careful how you respond. You want to provide solutions—not take sides or magnify the problem. It’s a sentiment shared by David Bakke, HR Pro at Dollar Sanity: “Do not say ‘Yeah, I know that person’s a pain, but . . . ’ ” Instead, thank them for sharing and perhaps move onto asking for specific examples on how their colleague is making them feel unhappy at work. Focus on gathering the facts and then strategizing a solution together from there.

2. Providing and Receiving Feedback

As a leader, your mission is to help employees achieve personal and professional growth; accomplishing this requires actionable and helpful feedback. Not only does this promote effective communication among staff, but it also produces positive and lasting results for the entire team.

Ask for Their Thoughts/Feedback and Listen

A well-rounded company carries a healthy feedback loop where both sides—management and employees—are free and encouraged to voice their ideas and concerns. After giving feedback to your employee, set aside time for them to speak.

It’s important to always make sure to get input from your employee. As much as you want to help them, ultimately, it’s their journey and you want to encourage them to be the pilot. As David Reischer, CEO at LegalAdvice.com, puts it: “It is critical to provide an opportunity for an employee to express themselves and to also empower the employee to take control and influence over their job.”

You can initiate this by asking:

  • “What are your thoughts?”
  • “Do you have what you need?”
  • “What would make work better for you?”
  • “Is there anything that I’m misreading/misunderstanding?”
  • “I would love to know what might be going on.”

Be fully present by actively listening—this is key to successful communication and effectively finding solutions to negative attitudes. Phillip Wilson, author of The Approachability Playbook: 3 Essential Habits for Thriving Leaders and Teams advises using the following phrase after listening to employees: “ ‘You feel [emotional state] because of [summary of situation]. Do I have that right?’. . . Only after confirming understanding (and often feeling misunderstood is the cause of negative behavior) do you then collaborate on possible solutions.”

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Give Clear, Actionable Advice

When you’ve tackled the root cause of their negative behavior, how do you move forward with providing tangible advice? It’s all about planting yourself in the right state of mind. Katherine King, CEO of Invisible Culture, goes by what she calls the “Workplace Question Trinity,” asking “Where are we now?,” “Where do we want to be?,” and “How are we going to get there?”

Don’t just express what they’re doing wrong. According to Grace Judson, leadership speaker and coach, saying “You’re so negative!” isn’t helpful. “Keep it specific to actions or behavior, not personality traits.” The key is guiding them on how to transform negative behaviors in a positive way that benefits them and their colleagues. It also helps communicate what is expected of them going forward.

For instance, if an employee complains about an ongoing issue in a client project, you can remind them of past wins and how, despite the hurdles, the team was able to come out on top. This can help them look at things in a more optimistic light that can be passed onto others.

Set Up Warnings If Necessary

Depending on how severe an employees’ behaviors/attitudes are affecting those around them, how they respond to your discussion, and whether the issue persists, it might be necessary to establish and communicate warnings. You can document a warning and have the employee sign it, reflecting that they had a conversation with you.

This practices discipline and establishes consequences that could help your employee take it more seriously. “Repeated cases that follow are subject to stricter measures,” explains John Stevenson, founder/CEO of Top VPN Canada. “Although an employer is responsible for their personnel’s well-being, employees must conduct themselves accordingly in return.”

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3. Instill Positivity in the Workplace

Though it’s essential to mitigate the negativity with the strategies above, if you aren’t instilling positivity in your organization’s culture on top of that, the same problems will surface. Our group of leaders and experts provided a variety of helpful tips on fueling positivity at work:

Be Inclusive

Every employee wants to feel included and valued; it’s about being seen and heard. “Develop a sense of ownership among employees,” says Dr. Michael Provitera, author of Level Up Leadership. “Giving them a voice . . . Rewarding them for good ideas and not reprimand them for ideas that fail.”

You can encourage inclusivity by:

  • Providing your employees the credit and recognition they deserve. Celebrate achievements! Keep track of who’s working on what so that you can give people a pat on the back when the time comes. A little recognition goes a long way.
  • Keeping everyone updated. Giving company or team updates to only a specific group can brew tension and bitterness among staff. So, keep each person in the know. They’ll feel much more part of the team and ready to proactively dive into projects.
  • Giving opportunities to express opinions. “Some employees, if not given a chance to express their discomfort, will turn the grudge into a negative attitude,” explains Pete Sosnowski, VP, People, at BOLD and co-founder and VP of Zety. Seek employees’ feedback on workplace policies and procedures, and use their responses to help reframe them.

Check Yourself

As a leader, it’s important you set a good example for your staff. “Employees take their cues on behavior from the top,” says Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists. “If the boss is constantly critiquing and griping, those attitudes will spread throughout the team.”

Stay aware of the language you use when communicating with staff. You can also ask a trusted member on the team for feedback. They can tell you whether you have an unintentional source of negativity and can perhaps offer advice on how to shift that.

Tech executive and consultant, Aviv Ben-Yosef explains further that leaders have to incorporate what he calls their “Executive Mindset”: “That means that they actively adopt a can-do attitude, they do not bring negativity to conversations with their employees, and do not offer unconstructive criticism.”

Provide Opportunities for Growth

Employee negativity can stem from a lack of career and development opportunities presented at work. If people aren’t feeling like they’re growing and gaining new, applicable skills, then they can begin to feel negative and unhappy.

Provide cross-training, opportunities for promotions, and career path plans for each employee. Be sure to get everyone’s feedback on these components to craft mutually-beneficial programs. When these initiatives are planted with everyone’s creativity and goals, this can enhance workplace relationships and create an inclusive environment.

And as Tim Reitsma, consulting expert and sales and operations strategist of People Managing People, puts it: “Bad employee attitudes should be treated as an opportunity to improve workplace relationships.” Remember, negativity can be a stepping stone to problem-solving.

Be Authentic

Especially when things aren’t going well in the office, positivity has the potential to rebound. People might perceive it as insincere and ignore it. Thus, be genuine in your communication. “Treat your employees with dignity and respect,” shares Reischer of LegalAdvice.com. “It’s essential to really listen to your employees’ suggestions and engage in a genuine dialogue with their ideas.”

Spur Positive Change

With numerous different personalities, navigating negativity in the workplace can get complex and challenging. But by using the strategies above, you can find the determination and tools to wade through this journey and even more importantly, identify opportunities for productive growth.

Nate Richardson
SEO Analyst

Nate is an SEO Analyst at BambooHR, with the impossible mission of delivering content that consistently satisfies both people and search engines.