Learn How to Manage a Negative Employee

Get Tips That Will Help You Deal with Negativity in Your Workplace

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A negative employee can infect a work group or a team with negativity faster than you can imagine. An earlier article suggested how employees can deal with a negative coworker.

Another suggested how you can deal with workplace negativity when you determine that you are the negative employee. It's difficult to 'fess up, but sometimes the negative coworker is you. This takes a degree of self-awareness that many employees are incapable of practicing.

Sometimes employee efforts are successful in dealing with a negative coworker and occasionally a person who exudes negativity realizes that they are the problem. But, since employees are not skilled or trained, or comfortable at handling negativity or conflict, they often turn to their manager for help in dealing with the negative coworker.

This is not the most pleasant component of a manager’s job, but if you manage people, you will eventually encounter a situation in which you need to manage a negative person—for the sake of your other employees and the team. To avoid this sometimes scary task is to let down your workgroup and allow an unconscionable situation to exist.

You can manage a negative employee—and sometimes—you can help the employee turn the negativity around. Your best approach is to not let the negativity get started in the first place, but if it’s already creating destruction in your workplace, here are steps that you can take to manage the negative employee.

7 Steps to Deal with a Negative Employee

If the negativity emanates from a single individual, you can take these seven steps to solve the problem.

  • Inform the employee about the negative impact her negativity is having on coworkers and the department. Use specific examples that describe behaviors the employee can do something about in the workplace.

    For example, when another employee says, “Good morning, how are you?” and your response is a 15-minute monolog on how nothing is right in this workplace, you bring your coworker’s mood and optimism down.

    You use up to 15 minutes of productive work time and make your coworker unwilling to engage with you in conversation in the future. You risk your coworkers avoiding you at all costs which will affect your work effectiveness and productivity. You will not receive the information that you need to perform your job or make important contributions.
  • Avoid becoming defensive. Don’t take the employee’s negative words or attitude personally. They are not directed at you. For whatever reason, the employee is unhappy with his or her life, work, or you name it.

    No one likes hearing constructive feedback even when a manager uses the best, most practiced, approach to minimize the employee’s defensiveness. And, the majority of managers have not had a lot of training and practice in dealing with difficult people, so their approach is uncomfortable for all parties.
  • Ask the employee if something negative is happening in her personal life that is affecting her workplace success. For example, a divorce affects every aspect of an employee’s life. The loss of a close family member does, too. You’re not a therapist or counselor, but knowing what is happening in the employee's life lets you offer sympathy or another appropriate expression of good or hopeful wishes.

    It can also help the employee see that you are interested in and concerned about them as a person. Even as you offer sympathy, though, you must ask the employee to keep the personal issues from affecting their workplace performance.
  • Ask the employee what is causing his negativity at work. Listen to the employee’s complaints and concerns until you’re certain that the employee feels heard out and listened to. Sometimes people repeat negative sentiments because they don’t feel as if you have really heard them. Make sure that you have actively listened. The employee will feel the difference.

    Some of the employee’s concerns may be legitimate. You may be able to help him solve legitimate workplace concerns. Others, you may be able to explain why they exist and ask the employee to cooperate and have patience. Once the employee understands the timeline, the decision or the reason for the goal, his negativity may improve.
  • Focus on creating solutions. Don’t focus on everything that is wrong and negative about the employee’s outlook or actions in your approach. This will only cause the employee to dig himself more deeply into his grievances. 

    Focus instead on creating options for how the employee can create positive morale for himself and his coworkers going forward.  If the person is unwilling to hold this discussion, and you feel you have fairly heard him out, end the discussion.

    You may need to begin the process of disciplinary action to reinforce the concepts you are sharing with the employee.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of her performance and the potential contributions the individual brings to the work setting, not the negativity. Help the employee build her self-image and capacity to contribute.

    Talk to her about what she has done well and what her coworkers and you appreciate about her performance. Even during a conversation about a negative aspect of performance, reflecting on the positive is a welcome addition.
  • In the future, when interacting with the employee, try to compliment the individual any time you hear a positive statement or contribution rather than negativity from her. You'll want to reinforce, as much as possible, the positive interactions the employee has with other employees and the workplace.

If none of the above is working and the employee’s negativity continues to have an impact on productivity, workplace harmony, and department members’ attitudes and morale, deal with the negativity as you would any other performance issue. Use progressive discipline which you apply effectively and legally to the employee's performance.

Remember that these seven steps are worth your time before you become mired in the process of disciplinary action. Take heart from the fact that they frequently work when you hit an employee's negativity head on in your workplace.