June 12, 2012 | Barb Carr

Career Development: 10 Tips to Nip Negativity in Your Organization

[Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the author, Captain George Burk.  Learn more about the author on his website: www.georgeburk.com.]

Just about every organization has one: the employee who can tell you all about what is wrong with the organization and who is to blame. Sometimes, but not often, they may even offer their opinion on how to rectify the problem.

This type of negativity is the most damaging to the organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, and employee morale.  Negativity saps the energy out of the organization by distracting workers from doing their jobs.  Leaders and managers often choose to ignore the problem in the hopes that it will simply disappear.  But the negativity usually intensifies and gets worse.

“Anger makes dull men witty, but it keeps them poor.” Queen Elizabeth II

“Negativity is a habit,” says Gary Topchik, author of “Managing Workplace Negativity.”  “If you let a habit grow, it’s harder to change when it gets rooted.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that absenteeism and turnover cost American companies $9 billion a year.  Both are signs that negativity can and do affect the workplace.  In the extreme cases, disgruntled employees can become violent and take out their frustrations on their co-workers.

Employees express their dissatisfaction, their “blues” many experts call it, in several ways: the way they talk, their body language and their behavior.  If an employee rejects every idea with statements like “It’ll never happen,” you know you may have a serious problem.

A person’s body language speaks volumes about who they are and how they perceive themselves, both professionally and personally. Body language is a good indicator into what is going-on in the person’s life away from work.  A few signs are when a usually cordial employee avoids making eye contact with you.  This can be the first sign that the employee is feeling negative.  Rampant gossip is another clue.

A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.” Charlotte Bronte, author

“The employee who is negative always seems to be at the center of all the gossip,” says Lois Frankel, a partner of Corporate Coaching International.  The signs can be subtle.  Some employees show up on time and do their work, but little else. “They work to the rule and they don’t go beyond it,” Frankel says.  “You give them an assignment and they do exactly what you ask.”

Don’t ignore the warning signs.  Not only are negative workers harder to change as time passes, the leader also runs the risk that their negativity will spread. So what can leaders and supervisors do? Plenty, experts and here are a few tips.

1. Try to understand the cause. Experts say that negativity usually stems from the organization itself.  If growth paths, work conditions, salaries and step increases, or benefits lag, attitudes will, too.   However, money may not be the central issue. People can become jaded if they believe they have no control over their jobs.

2. Discuss the problem – and be specific. “You can’t say, ‘You have a bad attitude’ because no one knows what that means,” Topchik says. “You need to say, ‘At meetings you use these words, and I want you to use these words instead.’”

3. Open up communications. Give employees a way to express their views then really listen to what they have to say.  At PEC Solutions Inc., a Fairfax, VA –based internet Technology Company, employees can e-mail the Chief Executive with questions and complaints.  Whether it’s about vacation policies, job transfers or benefit issues, if an employee is uncomfortable asking his or her direct supervisor a question, they can do so anonymously through PLC’s Ask Dave online forum. “This has been an effective tool in tracking potential problems across the company and to implement solutions in a timely way,” said PLC spokesman John McNeilly.

4. Respond fairly and promptly. If employees work-up the nerve to talk to you one-on-one, don’t brush them off in a panic.  But don’t give in to their demands on the spot, either.  Talk about what is on their mind and be honest.  Discuss mutual goals and what is needed to reach a solution you both can live with.   Experts say that admitting that inequities can exit and that the leader is willing to try and correct them are the keys.  PLC Solutions uses midyear equity reviews to make sure its salaries are fair.  Sit down and actively listen to what the person has to say and help define their goals and how they can best meet them.

“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than closed by belief.”  Gerry Spence, attorney

5. Build a community at work. If an employee has a best friend at work, they have someone to help sort the issues on an informal basis.  Encourage people to befriend others in the organization that are not in their direct line of supervision so they have an opportunity to have a buddy they can turn to if they have an issue or question.

6. Help workers improve their skills. Evaluate your training budget to determine if there is enough money available for employee training. If not, see what can be done to increase the budget and encourage employees to enroll in classes that will enhance their jobs and careers. In addition to paying for the courses or reimbursing the employee for the cost of the course, give them time-off to take the class.

7. Be sensitive to the fallout of change. Leaders must recognize that change can be rather daunting for some employees. “If organizations don’t give workers the skills to apply to the new change, people lose confidence and loyalty,” Topchik says.

8. Remember the golden rule. Whatever the reasons for the employee’s negative and disruptive attitude, your chances for turning him or her around will increase if you treat them as an adult.  Leaders who deal with their employees fairly and consistently enhance trust and respect.  Treat them as you would want to be treated if the “shoe was on the other foot.”

“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.” Knute Rockne, football coach

9. When all else fails, show the negative employee the door. Sometimes negativity stems from being in the wrong job at the wrong time.  If you have done your job as a leader and built a strong relationship with your employees, you can sit down with them and help them transition into another job elsewhere.  In those organizations where you are working under a labor/management union contract, follow the personnel policies, practices and working conditions under that contract, and contained in your headquarters policies for termination.  In these situations, it is important that you also document the employee’s negative attitude and behavior in as much detail as possible.  Without proper and consistent documentation, terminating or transferring the employee to another location is almost impossible.

10. What employees can do when leadership create a culture of negativity. Unfortunately, there are still too many organizations that stray from their original vision, mission, and values. Far too often, leaders make a conscious decision to base all facets of the product, service and customer service on the “bottom line” and not on the quality of the product and customer service. This cultural change often begins by using inferior products and components, losing sight of why they are in business and how they treat their internal and external customers. When an employee lets the organization know about these issues, the same negativity may get the employee fired. Negativity is contagious. It is critical to the organizations success that the leader and leadership really listen to the message and don’t “shoot the messenger.”

Sweet are the uses of adversity. Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” William Shakespeare, playwright

When this happens, tap into and expand on your knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts to seek a position elsewhere; perhaps with a competitor. Use the lessons learned to your advantage; be a survivor and not a victim.  See your glass of life as half-full, not half-empty. You were given a lemon, now make lemonade. Yes, the organization got rid of the “messenger” without addressing the real issue(s). You won, they lost.

“Whistle while you work. Hey, it worked for the Dwarfs.”

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