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  • Published Jan 08, 2024

Coaching Employees With Negative Attitudes: Turning Challenging Employees into Stars

Effective strategies and proven techniques for managers and leaders to improve employee attitudes and create a positive work environment.

Devanshi Punch
Devanshi Punch

Happy Companies

3 colleagues sitting on stairs, distracted and low

Ever felt like you're living an episode of 'The Office', dealing with your very own Dwight Schrute? In reality, a single person's negative attitude can have a ripple effect throughout an entire workspace. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains, "Negativity is like a virus; it can spread quickly and silently, affecting not only the individual but the entire organization."

Dealing with negative employees can be difficult. It can affect morale and team dynamics, leading to lower productivity. The Harvard Business Review published an article, 'The Price of Incivility' that revealed 98% of workers have experienced rudeness or negativity in the office at some point in their careers. The study goes on to reveal that 80% of people who experience negativity lose time worrying about the incident, leading to nearly half of them not working as hard or spending less time working.

Attempts to ignore or counter negative coworkers may only make things worse. But here's the good news: by being proactive, you can help the pessimist change their behavior and improve company culture. The goal is to turn discord into harmony. In this article, we will explore the causes of negativity in the workplace, effective communication strategies for coaching an employee with a negative attitude, and techniques that can bring about a positive change. By the end of this article, you will have the knowledge and tools to create a more positive, productive, and harmonious work environment.

Quote by Adam Grant, "Negativity is like a virus; it can spread quickly and silently, affecting not only the individual but the entire organization"

The Negative Impacts of Negativity

Negative employees don't exist in a silo - and unfortunately there is an impact on the entire team which it is important to note.

Negative attitudes can greatly impact team dynamics. They can cause more conflicts, less collaboration, increased stress, and an overall sense of dissatisfaction within the team. While a little bit of "creative tension" or "healthy conflict" can be beneficial for generating new ideas and making better decisions, uncontrolled negativity can damage team unity and relationships.

The toll of negative coworkers on a team can take various forms including these:

  • Cultural contagion: Negativity tends to spread quickly. When one team member consistently expresses pessimism, others may follow suit, creating a culture of cynicism.
  • Emotional drain: Constant negativity can emotionally drain both the individual and those around them, affecting overall team morale and well-being.
  • Lack of psychological safety: Negative employees can discourage others from sharing their ideas and being vulnerable, which hinders innovation and limits problem-solving potential.
  • Disengagement: Negative environments are less productive, often involving disputes and distractions, which leads to general disengagement.

Collaboration also suffers as workers try to avoid their aggressor. 78% feel their commitment to the organization decline. There are also real and immediate impacts: 25% had taken out their frustration on a customer and 12% had left their jobs. The effects range from insidious undermining of productivity and morale to the loss of key talent and damage to customer relationships.This research emphasizes the importance of not only acknowledging but also actively addressing negative attitudes in the workplace.

Clearly, addressing negativity in the workplace is important to having productive and engaged teams.

Understanding Negative Attitudes in the Workplace

Woman yawning, her eyes covered with drawn eye paper

Types of Negative Employees

In any workplace, like any ecosystem, each individual has a crucial role in maintaining balance. Employee attitudes significantly affect the workplace environment. Understanding and identifying negative attitudes is essential for effective resolution.

Here are some common ways you may see negativity show up in the next work - as well as some ways to reframe them.

The Feedback Resistors

  • The Challenge: These employees are often resistant to feedback, viewing it as a personal attack.
  • Positive Reframing: Remember this is often tied to their strong sense of personal standards and commitment to their work. Suggest that they view feedback as a means to align their high standards with team goals. Emphasize that feedback is not a critique of their competence but an opportunity for team alignment and personal growth.

The Deadline Dodgers

  • Negative Trait: Tendency to miss deadlines, suggesting a casual approach to time management.
  • Positive Framing: Acknowledge their flexibility and adaptability in handling tasks. Encourage them to use these strengths to better manage their time by prioritizing tasks and setting realistic deadlines. Offer tools or strategies for effective time management, highlighting how this can enhance their natural adaptability.

The Blame Gamers

  • Negative Trait: Shifting blame and not owning up to mistakes.
  • Positive Framing: Recognize their ability to analyze external factors affecting work. Encourage them to use this skill to proactively identify potential challenges and develop solutions, rather than using it defensively. Stress the importance of accountability as a tool for personal and team growth, and how owning up to mistakes can be empowering and a sign of professional maturity.

The Lone Wolves

  • Negative Trait: Preference for working independently, avoiding teamwork.
  • Positive Framing: Highlight their self-sufficiency and focus. Suggest ways they can contribute these strengths to team efforts, like taking on individual components of larger projects or leading segments where autonomy is beneficial. Encourage them to share their independent findings with the team, fostering a bridge between solo and team work.

The Gossip Spreaders

  • Negative Trait: Engaging in gossip and spreading rumors.
  • Positive Framing: Acknowledge their strong communication skills and network within the office. Redirect this energy towards positive communication, such as sharing team successes or interesting industry news. Encourage them to become a source of motivational or constructive information, transforming their role from gossip spreader to positive news ambassador.

The Roots of Negativity in the Workplace

Stressed, fatigued employee sitting with head under hands at desk

Exploring the Causes Behind Negative Attitudes

Understanding the origins of negativity in the workplace is an intricate task. It is important to approach this issue with sensitivity, avoiding stereotypes, and recognizing that human behavior is diverse and often deeply personal.

  • Personal Issues: Personal life challenges often spill over into the workplace. For instance, an employee dealing with family stress, health issues, or financial worries may inadvertently exhibit negative behaviors at work. This external source of stress can manifest as irritability, disengagement, or a pessimistic outlook.
  • Work-Related Frustrations: The workplace itself can be a breeding ground for negativity. Employees may feel undervalued, overworked, or stifled by lack of growth opportunities. Being passed over for a deserving promotion, feeling underappreciated, or facing constant high-pressure demands can lead to a sustained negative attitude.
  • Lack of Motivation: Sometimes, the root cause of employee dissatisfaction is a lack of alignment with their job role or the company's values. When an employee is not passionate about their work or feels that their skills are underutilized, they may become disenchanted. This can result in a lack of motivation and a negative demeanor.

Understanding Transient vs. Chronic Negativity

It's important to understand the difference between transient and chronic negativity. Transient negativity is just like a passing storm – it's only temporary and usually happens because of specific events (like a stressful project deadline).

On the other hand, chronic negativity is more deeply rooted and habitual. It's a consistent pattern of negative behavior and attitude that keeps going no matter what the circumstances are.

To better classify negativity in the workplace, let's consider some case examples. These scenarios illustrate temporary negative attitudes triggered by specific circumstances.

  • The Overwhelmed Perfectionist: Consider Sarah, a graphic designer known for her meticulous work. Recently, she's been missing deadlines and snapping at colleagues. A deeper look reveals that Sarah's perfectionism, combined with an increased workload, has left her overwhelmed and anxious, leading to her negative behavior.
  • The Disillusioned Veteran: Mike, a long-time employee, used to be a top performer. Lately, he's become cynical and disengaged. His negativity stems from feeling stagnant in his career, watching new hires climb the ladder while he remains in the same position.
  • The Burned-Out Caregiver: Anita, a team leader, has been juggling work and caring for an ill family member. Her usual positivity has slipped into negativity, marked by a short temper and lack of enthusiasm. Her personal challenges are clearly impacting her professional demeanor.

Each of these examples illustrates how negativity can stem from a variety of sources. Identifying these roots is the first step towards addressing and eventually transforming negative attitudes in the workplace.

If the situation is persistent and not attached to specific circumstance, it may be an ongoing and chronic issue. This might be seen in employees who consistently exhibit a negative attitude regardless of changes in circumstances or efforts to address their concerns.

Strategies for Addressing Negative Employees

Nipping negativity in the bud is crucial. The longer negative attitudes and behaviors are left unaddressed, the more they can permeate the workplace, impacting team morale and productivity. Early intervention prevents the spread of this 'negativity virus' and can make the difference between a temporary issue and a long-term problem. A proactive approach demonstrates to the team that management is committed to maintaining a positive company culture.

Enthusiastic coworker with introvert, confused coworker

1. Start With a Constructive Conversation

Setting the stage for a constructive conversation is key. This involves choosing the right time and place, ensuring privacy and a setting free from interruptions. It's important to approach the conversation with a clear objective – not to reprimand, but to understand and help. Managers should approach these conversations with an open mind and a non-accusatory tone.

This can be particularly challenging when dealing with behaviors that are disruptive or hard to understand. For instance, what might be perceived as negative by one person might not be intended as such by the employee exhibiting the behavior.

2. Exercise Empathy

Empathy is vital to addressing negative attitudes. Listening actively and without judgment allows managers to understand the employee's perspective. It's about validating their feelings, even if you don't agree with their viewpoint.

This approach can help uncover underlying issues that may be contributing to the negative behavior, whether they are personal, related to workplace dynamics, or a mismatch between the employee's role and their strengths or interests.

3. Demonstrate Self-Awareness

Self-awareness plays a significant role in this process. It's important for managers to be aware of how their reactions and responses might be perceived by the employee. At the same time, part of the journey for the negative employee is developing self-awareness – understanding how their behavior affects others and how others perceive them.

This can be a delicate process, as pushing too hard for self-awareness can cause an employee to become defensive or shut down. By understanding these dynamics and approaching conversations with empathy and an open mind, managers can begin to effectively address negativity in the workplace.

These steps emphasize the importance of early intervention and a proactive approach, demonstrating commitment to a positive work environment and addressing negativity constructively.

4. Modeling Positive Behaviors by Managers

Managers play a pivotal role in shaping the workplace environment. Their behavior sets a precedent for the team's conduct and attitude. When managers consistently exhibit positive behaviors, such as effective communication, transparency, and approachability, they create a standard for the team to emulate. A manager's ability to remain constructive and optimistic, even in challenging situations, can inspire employees to adopt a similar outlook.

5. Culture of Recognition and Appreciation

Recognizing achievements, whether through formal awards or simple verbal acknowledgments in team meetings, reinforces positive behaviors and motivates employees to maintain or improve their performance. The former CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, often recognized the efforts of his employees, even writing thousands of personal notes to employees each year. His commitment to employee recognition helped create a positive and loyal workforce. For negative employees, such recognition can be particularly transformative. It serves as a reminder that their contributions are meaningful and noticed, countering feelings of insignificance or dissatisfaction that often underlie negative attitudes.

6. Promoting Teamwork to Reduce Isolation

Encouraging collaborative work, whether through team projects or joint problem-solving sessions, helps build a sense of community within the workplace. As team members interact more closely, they develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other's strengths and challenges, leading to a more cohesive and supportive work environment. Pixar's collaborative approach to filmmaking, where creativity and ideas are openly shared among team members, is a great example of reducing isolation through teamwork. This collaborative environment encourages everyone to contribute, ensuring that no one feels disconnected or undervalued. Close workplace relationships play a pivotal role in driving employee engagement and organizational success.

7. Peer Mentoring and Buddy Systems

Take the bond between mentor-mentee duos like Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil. Oprah's guidance helped launch Dr. Phil's career, showing the power of mentorship. In the workplace, pairing a negative employee with a more positive, experienced colleague can provide them with practical advice and a different perspective, helping them navigate challenges more effectively.

8. Team-Building Activities for Morale

These activities, ranging from creative workshops to outdoor team challenges, encourage employees to interact in a non-work-related setting. For negative employees, these activities can be a platform for breaking out of their usual patterns of interaction and seeing their colleagues in a new light. Spotify organizes hack weeks where employees form teams to work on creative projects outside their regular responsibilities. This initiative not only sparks innovation but also builds trust and camaraderie among employees, both essential elements for a positive work environment.

9. Channels for Voicing Concerns

Regular team meetings, feedback sessions, or anonymous suggestion systems are effective ways to ensure that every employee’s voice is heard. It gives negative employees a constructive outlet for their frustrations and ensures that their opinions are considered in decision-making processes. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia has an open-door policy that encourages employees to speak directly with their managers or even the company’s CEO about any concerns or suggestions. This policy fosters a culture of openness and trust within the company.

Focus on Effective Communication

See-hear-speak no-evil variation of office coworkers

For any approach to work you will need to find a way to effectively communicate with the employee. Communication is a critical tool in addressing and coaching an employee with a negative attitude.

  • Choosing the Right Time and Place: Selecting a suitable environment for discussions is essential. Opt for a quiet, private space where both parties can converse without distractions. Timing is crucial. Engage in conversations when neither party is under pressure or preoccupied, ensuring full attention and focus.
  • Non-Confrontational Dialogue Techniques: When addressing sensitive issues, employ non-confrontational techniques to prevent defensiveness. Use open-ended questions to encourage the employee to express their thoughts and feelings. For example, instead of asking, "Why is it that you always find something to criticize?", try "It seems like you're not feeling your best lately. What's been going on?". Use neutral language that avoids implying judgment or criticism, facilitating a more open and honest dialogue.
  • Reflective Listening for Understanding: Practice reflective listening by attentively hearing the speaker and then paraphrasing their message, confirming your understanding. This approach not only validates the employee's perspective but also demonstrates genuine interest and engagement. Building trust and empathy through reflective listening is key in addressing sensitive workplace issues.
  • Encouraging Candor in Feedback: Encouraging candor without compromising psychological safety is essential when providing feedback. Steer clear of blunt or harsh criticism. Focus on specific behaviors rather than personality traits. For example, gently mention, "I've noticed a few challenges with meeting recent deadlines," instead of pointing out habitual lateness. Invite the employee to reflect on their alignment with team goals and how they perceive their role, offering support to identify areas for improvement.
  • Tailoring Communication to Individuals: Recognize and adapt to the unique communication styles of each employee. Some may prefer direct, factual communication, while others might respond better to a more empathetic and supportive approach.

Understanding different workstyles is crucial in this context, and tools like Happy can be very valuable to develop such understanding. Consider an employee who is very task-focused, direct, and less engaged in social interactions, which could be misconstrued as negativity. On the other hand, a colleague who is characterized by enthusiasm and a focus on relationships might perceive this behavior as unfriendly or uncooperative.

The key here is recognizing that these are simply different approaches to work and communication, not necessarily indicative of negative attitudes. Using Happy Coach to navigate these conversations provides you with specific, always-on, expert advice that is personalized to both you and the employee and can provide specific communication strategies.

Employing these communication strategies can significantly aid in addressing negativity in the workplace, paving the way for a more harmonious and productive environment.

Quote by Winston Churchill, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference"

In the wise words of Winston Churchill, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." This rings especially true in the workplace, where the collective attitude shapes our daily experiences. Crafting a positive workplace is similar to nurturing a garden; it requires patience, care, and attentiveness to the weeds of negativity that may arise. By coaching employees with negative attitudes early, engaging in empathic dialogue, and fostering a culture of appreciation, we sow the seeds of positivity. In this space, every employee has the potential to thrive, transforming challenges into opportunities for growth and collaboration. Together, we can create a workplace that is not only functional but truly thriving.

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