How to Handle 
Workplace Negativity

Douglas talks to experts to find out how you can lift the black cloud of workplace negativity for a brighter outcome.

Every office has one (or two, or three, or, God help you, more). The black cloud whose morose fog seeps in constantly, through grumbling, backstabbing, or even deliberately setting others up for failure. If left unchecked, that fog of disillusionment evoked by negative attitudes will poison the whole place.

Workplace negativity stems from a number of areas, including any or all of the following:

• a sense of having little control over one’s workload

• a lack of meaningful and challenging work

• believing that the work isn’t being evenly spread around

• a sense that one’s concerns aren’t being heard

• challenges that the individual in question faces in his or her own life

• poor leadership.

Loads of causes, right? But look carefully. In most instances — except the last — it boils down to a single issue: the employee in question feels his or her concerns aren’t being heard. “I think in most cases it comes from a lack of good, honest communication,” says Chateau Victoria general manager Brenda Ollis. “Communication has to be two-way: not just good delivery, but good listening skills.”

Let’s go back to that mention of poor leadership. Nothing has a more negative impact on your workplace or culture than ineffective managers, says Kathy Neeves, owner of Evolution HR Services, which bills itself as a human resources solution for small businesses.

“These are managers who work via a command-and-control approach, who believe they — and only they — have the right answers; or worse, who are not even paying attention to the thoughts and needs of the team.” How can an employee feel heard when she’s working for someone like that? The bad news: leaders like this are everywhere.

About Negativity

There’s not much you can do if someone’s home life is making them grumpy. But you can show genuine concern. “Ask them, ‘Are you okay to be here?’” says Jamie Lynn Gowitt, director of human resources at ParetoLogic Inc. “It’s no problem if they feel just too stressed out about their work: take the day off.”

The important thing, stresses Gowitt, is for supervisors to be direct. “It’s not being afraid to address it head on. Don’t avoid it because that’s the most comfortable position. Sometimes it’s best to get uncomfortable and address it.”

Sit down with disgruntled employees and help them articulate what they really want. If they’re unhappy with their job, the company, or their manager, ask what they want to do about it. What are their goals? “I help them understand that, in reality, they are in control,” says Neeves. “This is their life and they are the only one holding the reins.”

Seeking employees’ views on a regular basis is good practice. It worked for Rob Gialloreto, who, when he started as CEO of Tourism Victoria about five years ago, sat the staff down and asked what kind of organization they wanted to work in.

Gialloreto sought to build his organization from the inside out, and selected staff who fit with 
the corporate culture they envisioned for themselves. He also made sure people were working in areas where they felt they could contribute most.

Creating Success

Gialloreto recalls that when he first came to Tourism Victoria, there was a particularly strong employee who was preparing for departure. The reason? The employee in question possessed a tremendous skill set that wasn’t being tapped. “So we made some changes,” he says, “and we made certain that person was in a position where they could deliver.”

Today, he notes, because everyone who’s on board is in a spot they like, the culture at Tourism Victoria — which claimed number-one ranking in the BC Business 2011 Best Companies in Hospitality and Tourism — is self-correcting. People work there because they want to be there.

It’s hard to open yourself to 
the honest views of others, but it’s a key skill for managers. “If your goal is to be loved, you are likely in the wrong role,” says Neeves. “If your goal is to be effective and respected, then you need to create an environment where you are asking the right questions and where you are open to the real answers.”

Use your own experience as much as possible, advises Ollis. It’s easier to manage a problem when you have first-hand knowledge than to try and tackle the he-said/she-saids.

Recognize the Positive

Finally, make sure your staff feels appreciated. “People want to be recognized for a job well done,” says Gowitt. Ensure your performance management programs outline clear “where-am-I-going?” career directional paths, and set aside time for fun and team building.

“I can’t say [enough about] how valuable the time investment is in team involvement activities,” she says. In the end, good leadership can only get you so far if an employee persists in maintaining a negative attitude.

Eventually, you may have to weigh the good of the organization against the energy it takes to manage one negative person. Just be sure to document specific instances where the negativity is affecting the organization — and when it comes time to say goodbye, don’t be dragged into the negativity. Be clear and be positive that this is the right move for both the employee and your company.