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Dealing with Workplace Negativity

Posted by Eric Friedman

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No business environment, no matter how positive, can escape the occasional bout of negativity. Whether it’s an employee expressing disagreement about a new policy, an intern complaining about the lack of good coffee in the office kitchen, or a group of coworkers frustrated with the latest operating system, negative attitudes can affect how people interact—and most importantly, their productivity. HR has an important role to play in mitigating negativity in the workplace and preventing it from infecting the entire company.

Where does workplace negativity come from? According to Gary S. Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity, negativity “is often the result of a loss of confidence, control, or community.” When employees feel that they’ve lost something—a say in company decisions, the opportunity for a promotion or raise, or self confidence after a manager has put them down—their attitude is likely to turn negative very quickly. HR professionals would do well to keep their eyes and ears open for these kinds of situations.

One of the most common causes of workplace negativity stems from employees feeling that important decisions are being made without their input or any consideration of the implications on their work or lives. A company can’t possibly operate smoothly if it has to consider the feelings and opinions of every single employee for every decision to be made, but nonetheless it is important to make people feel that they do have a say, and that their opinions matter.

Another cause of negativity is the way promotions and raises are handled. Some employees may feel unhappy about being passed up for a promotion, or if someone they deem to be less productive gets a raise. Communication is key in these situations. You need to have clear policies in place about how promotions occur, and transparent review processes that employees fully understand and that delineate a career path they can shoot for.

Looking into the causes of workplace negativity wouldn’t be complete without considering one more source: the rumor mill. Nothing causes—and spreads—workplace negativity faster than rumors. Although they are usually started by an employee who misunderstands or reads into a situation, rumors must be taken seriously and quickly diffused by HR professionals. Never let rumors “run their course” or die on their own. If you catch wind of a rumor, stop it in its tracks. If it’s false, set the record straight. If it’s true, confer with your department heads and other relevant managers to figure out a straightforward and truthful way to officially share the information.

Here are a few tips on how to prevent workplace negativity before it starts:

  • Have open communication. Put simply: talk with employees. Keep channels of communication open, either through a company-wide intranet or just by letting employees know that your door is always open.
  • Encourage input. Employees often feel negatively about their job when they feel left out of decision-making. Encourage them to provide input by establishing a system for it, and making them aware that the system is there for them to provide input about everything from benefits, telecommuting and other HR policies, to bigger company issues.
  • Be consistent. When enforcing policies, promotions, or even demotions, be consistent in following established policies for how every employee or situation is treated. There’s no faster way to make employees feel negative than making them feel like there’s any kind of preferential treatment going on.
  • Foster a group atmosphere. When people feel that they’re part of a team, they’re more likely to feel positive about their work environment. Engage employees in group activities and outings and encourage managers to include employees in meetings and brainstorming sessions as much as possible.
  • Offer growth. If they think there is no clear path for professional advancement, it’s easy for employees to feel tired and discouraged. Make sure they know that there is a career path they can follow, as well as ways to develop their professional skills. Also, make sure that managers are open with their employees about what potential career growth is available in their departments and discuss those opportunities often.
  • Reward and recognize. When possible, reward and recognize good employees, and encourage managers to do the same. Nothing beats feeling important and appreciated to squash negative attitudes. A simple email or just a verbal congratulation on a job well done goes a long way. If your company is open to the idea of giving out awards, just make sure that there is a system in place so there’s no feeling of favoritism.

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About Eric Friedman

Author

Eric Friedman is the founder and CEO of eSkill Corporation, a leading provider of Web-based skills testing for pre-employment and training. With academic degrees in Psychology and Business, and experience with both mature and expansion-stage company growth, Eric has focused on how best to hire and motivate team members to be the best they can be for their companies.

4 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Roy November, 28, 2013

    Let’s be honest; anyone can have a bad attitude. We have all have been in a situation when we were overwhelmed by feelings of anger and frustration and have been challenged by work problems of various types. But it’s exactly the way we deal with our feelings and problems creates our attitude. Most managers want the bad attitudes to just go away or even don’t exist, but bad attitudes and negativity do not just go away on their own. The attitudes creating workplace negativity can turn into major productivity issues if not handled appropriately.

  • Lilly November, 28, 2013

    I believe that our feelings and emotions are bounced back to us by the environment we live and work in. In other words, by keeping a strong positive approach, we attract people to our end of the spectrum. 

  • Matthew November, 29, 2013

    I agree that we can’t fight negativity with negativity, even though it takes lots of patience and understanding to suppress our desire to shout back at the person creating negative atmosphere. But in the economic situation of today when you know that lots of talented people without anger management issues are out there waiting to take a place at your company, it’s hard to keep calm with the person who literally challenges you to fire him/her.

  • Kim November, 29, 2013

    Usually negativity arises from a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness. Sometimes people become negative because they simply believe that the world is all against them. Sometimes it is because they have failed in the past they are not willing to put any stock in a hopeful future. 

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Guest November, 29, 2013