How Do You Recognise and Manage Employee Negativity?
In every workplace, an element of employee negativity can creep in from time to time. No matter how strong the culture is, employees leaving, proposed changes from leadership, more competition in the market, perceived injustice, lack of opportunity, or failing systems and processes can all lead to negative sentiment.
If you have hired the right people and looked after them well, then this negativity is usually confined to a few individuals. Most will see the problems for what they are – temporary blips that happen in all organisations.
However, sometimes the negativity can spread. This is when a few employees can turn the workplace environment toxic, and present serious problems for an organisation.
How can you recognise this before it’s too late? And how should you handle such situations?
Recognising employee negativity
In some cases, it’s obvious: unscheduled days off, arriving late, leaving early, heated discussions, a drop in performance.
However, negativity in employees often manifests itself in much subtler ways. People are likely to cover their feelings up, while quietly going about their work and planning an escape route; sometimes, they have no intention of leaving for another job, but silently harbour their resentment as it slowly turns more poisonous and performance levels remain nothing more than adequate.
This can be dangerous. You need to be looking for the tell-tale signs in employees with negative attitudes before the poison spreads.
Here are some tips for recognising problems early:
• Without micro-managing, keep an ear out for repetitive criticism of decisions or complaints about changes
• Watch out for employees whose performance levels drop and try to find out the reasons why
• Try to identify where relationships are strained – either between leaders and their teams or between colleagues
• Listen for exaggerated responses to mistakes by others – sometimes people shift their frustration onto others
• Monitor where ‘gossip’ is causing negative rumours to spread
Note here that team leaders are usually closer to the frontline than you – use their eyes and ears for reporting back to you. Negativity will often be screened from the upper levels of leadership.
Identify what’s causing the negativity
The first thing to note is that ignoring it is not an option. Nobody expects life to be a bed of roses 24/7 but persistent negativity can be damaging, as we have seen.
So, first things first, we need to understand what might be causing the negativity. It could be colleagues, customers, their role, or the organisation as a whole.
A study conducted by Towers Perrin and Gang & Gang surveyed a group of 1,100 employees and 300 senior Human Resources executives in medium to- large-sized companies in the US and Canada. It found that the top reasons for employee negativity were:
• An excessive workload
• Concerns about management’s ability to lead the company forward successfully
• Anxiety about the future, particular longer-term job, income and retirement security
• Lack of challenge in their work, with boredom intensifying existing frustration about workload
• Insufficient recognition for the level of contribution and effort provided, and concerns that pay isn’t commensurate with performance.
As you can see, these reasons are all manageable. But you may not know the cause of the negativity, and you need to find out ASAP.
Strategies for managing negativity
In the short term, you will need to take the bull by the horns and address the employee directly.
This type of meeting takes considerable thought and planning in advance, as well as a comprehensive understanding of company policies and practices.
Assess the impact of the negativity on the business at large, team performance, colleagues, and on the individual in question. How does the employee’s behaviour diverge from the desired behaviour? Ideally, what you would like the outcome to be?
Assess how reversing the behaviour would impact the organisation. Are you prepared to let the employee go, or is the situation repairable and in the interests of both parties?
If it’s the first meeting of this kind, chances are that you will want to take steps to help the employee reach a solution. There may be complex personal issues underlying the negative sentiments and affecting performance at work.
You will want the employee to open up to you, so that you can get to the root of the problem. It can get awkward. Therefore, during the meeting:
• Take steps to help the employee lower their ‘barriers’ – make them feel as comfortable as possible about what you are discussing
• Tell the employee what they’re doing well – there are always positives to be taken
• Keep it professional and focused on job success and productivity – if it is perceived as a personal attack then the employee is likely to ‘clam up’
• Use specific examples of how the behaviour is affecting others and the organisation as a whole, rather than vague expressions like ‘bad attitude’
• Demonstrate the ‘desired’ behaviour using hypothetical examples – not colleagues, which is only likely to create resentment with others
• Use open questions to elicit information, wait for their answers, and listen carefully to the responses – don’t assume you know the answers already
• If the problem is personal, empathise, be compassionate, and don’t judge
• Be prepared that you could be the reason for the negativity (it happens!) – in which case, don’t get defensive and try not to take it personally
• If possible and applicable, offer hope that the situation can be turned around for the better
Note that these meetings should be documented and in the presence of another HR team member, to remove the suspicion of a personal attack against the employee in question.
You should also give the employee time to consider the exchange you’ve had. Arrange a follow-up meeting for the following week to go over things again and to see how they feel about what’s been said. Don’t push for snap answers in the first meeting.
You may suggest other meetings in the near future to monitor progress towards mutually-agreed goals, and you should comment on and reinforce any positive change of attitude and behaviour, if applicable.
Of course, if you are having these types of meeting regularly, your organisation may have deeper problems. At the very least, you will need a system of regular feedback to better manage negativity, but if the negativity is ingrained and spreading, it may require a re-think of many aspects of the organisation.
If your organisation is battling with negativity or you just need a few tips on handling isolated negative employees, feel free to email me at: email@example.com.