I have been working with many clients recently who have all shared with me the adverse effects of negative people in the workplace. Negativity is a big, black hole that sucks energy from everybody around it. That is why we feel drained after spending time with somebody who is in a negative state of mind. Negativity has the power to drain energy from other people because it is not a person’s natural state and takes a lot more energy to fuel. Since one person cannot keep up the energy levels required, negativity will survive by attracting others and draining their energy to fuel the fire. It’s a whirlpool of disaster that can quickly suck in the entire workplace, damaging productivity, performance and morale.

We have all met Negative Norman and Debbie Downer, and if you lead people, you will eventually encounter a situation in which you need to manage them. The ideal solution is to not appoint them in the first place, but if they are sabotaging your workplace here is how you can address them. As a leader it is important to be proactive, become aware of Debbie or Norman and talk with them.

It is vital to inform your colleague about the impact their negativity is having on others and the workplace. Don’t let them get away with it – they may start to believe it is acceptable to behave in that way. Direct conversations can be challenging but you need to avoid becoming defensive. Don’t take your colleague’s negative words or attitude personally, they are not directed at you. For whatever reason, your colleague is unhappy. No one likes hearing constructive feedback even when you use the best, most practiced, approach to minimise the colleague’s defensiveness. Understand that addressing the issue is uncomfortable for all parties. Follow the three-part guideline below to help structure your conversation.

Demonstrate You Have Listened

  • I hear what you are saying
  • That sounds like a real problem
  • Are you saying (repeat the complaint)?
  • You are clearly upset/annoyed/unhappy

State The Facts

  • When you said X it really upset Y
  • You spoke with X about this; I felt you should have spoken with me first
  • You cross your arms and roll your eyes during the meeting. This makes me feel that…

Create Action

  • How can I help you with this?
  • What solutions could we find?
  • How could we work together to solve this?

In using “I” or “we” in creating actions, you are modelling a shared responsibility and not placing blame. This is the culture that you need to create – joint positive working relationships. Always remember you cannot control another person’s behaviour, but you can control your actions and reactions to that behaviour.

If your colleague is unwilling to hold this discussion or you feel it is taking on more negativity, end the discussion and plan in some more time to try the above again. It may be that both parties need time to think about what has been said.

If none of the above is working and your colleague’s negativity continues to have an impact on productivity, workplace harmony, and other’s attitudes and morale, deal with the negativity as you would any other performance issue. If Norman or Debbie’s negativity has become more of the fabric of your team or workplace, there are other solutions that can be tried. Please contact me if you need support or look out for my next blog in which I will look at managing negative cultures.

As a leader you are responsible for cultivating a positive working culture. Instead of feeling like it’s the Norman or Debbie’s issue, view it as a challenge to actually make a real difference in your workplace. You’ll appreciate the results and so will your staff.


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