I wish I had a penny for every leader or manager I worked with who accepted some form of negativity at work, simply because it had become familiar. Like a persistent background noise, often negativity is tolerated until the impact becomes too hard to ignore. This might be when someone complains, or results are massively affected, or a customer notices and gives you feedback.
Negativity at work does impact results. This study by Michigan State University found productivity was directly affected, as "negative-minded workers are more likely to become mentally fatigued and defensive and experience a drop-off in production".
I was called in to work with a business which was missing shipping deadlines, customer complaints were escalating and arguments at work leading to discipline interviews were becoming the norm. Things had become untenable and the CEO was at a loss as to how to stop this downward spiral into negativity. The business was expanding internationally and they had come to a point where they knew they were heading towards a big fail because of the internal problems.
What I found out from the CEO was negativity had almost always been the cultural norm, but it had not been a big problem until recently. Like a rolling snowball, the negativity had grown and accelerated until it could no longer be ignored.
Examples of negativity at work
The worst extremes of negativity at work like bullying and harassment usually come to light fairly quickly. Research shows other poor behaviors, outlined below, cause almost as much distress to fellow workers as bullying, but they are often not viewed as seriously:
- Claiming credit for someone else's work;
- Setting out to make a member of staff appear incompetent and/or make their lives miserable through persistent criticism;
- Deliberately withholding information/providing incorrect information; and
- Isolating/deliberately ignoring/excluding someone from activities.
The behaviors I encountered in the example I mentioned above were far more subtle, frequently seen in the workplace and most tolerated. These showed up as:
- Blaming each other and overreacting when things went wrong
- Defensiveness, with a refusal to learn from mistakes
- Jumping to negative conclusions and being negative about each other
- Black and white thinking
- Focusing on problems, without striving for solutions
- Juggling for status
- Cultivating a bleak and depressing outlook for the business
- Blaming management
- Agreeing to actions in a meeting, only to come out and complain
When you see these actions in the workplace, many managers feel their hands are tied as often the work still appears to be getting done, negativity is seen as human nature or managers don't have the tools to help make positive changes.
How to link negativity to poor performance
When negative behaviors are more serious, it's relatively easy to link with misconduct and dignity at work type policies. When the negative behaviors are subtle, it's more difficult.
Some leaders and managers don't think they are able to link such negative behaviors with poor performance. Performance criteria are often based on results, competencies or skills and so it's difficult to quantify the impact of subtle negativity on performance in any meaningful way.
The way to link these subtle negative behaviors to performance is to assess the impact they have in terms of:
- Productivity - How much time is wasted complaining, blocking a solution-orientated approach or resulting disputes
- Cost - How much does it cost to bicker, moan and de-motivate people with a stream of negativity?
- Motivation - What is the impact of negativity on employee motivation and effort?
How to transform negativity
Raising awareness and set standards is a must as well as an ability to transform negativity to more positive thinking and behaviors. Here are 6 ways to you can make the switch.
1. By identifying the negative behaviors, you don't want to see, you can describe positive behaviors you do want and incorporate these behaviors in your value statement or behavioral competencies.
2. Set positive standards for the whole team, resisting the urge to identify individuals at this stage.
3. Leaders model the behaviors you want to see; it starts at the top.
4. Teach people how to get what they want in a constructive way, for example, show them effective ways of voicing views which engage rather than disengage.
5. Empower people to have their say by asking them to offer solutions.
6. Develop a "no blame" culture, using errors and mistakes as opportunities to learn.
Pivoting subtle negativity isn't always easy, but there are ways you can channel the energy to be a positive force if you have an intention for positive change.