A Positive Charge for a Negative Employee

How do you handle a perpetually negative employee? You may get an idea from this bit of conversation that I had with a distressed client about a pivotal but consistently negative staff member we’ll refer to as Ned.

Distressed Client: I don’t know what to do with Ned! If he can’t be more positive, at least let him keep his negativity to himself.

Liz Kislik: What’s been going on lately?

DC: Ned has really crossed the line in significant ways. He’s no longer just disagreeing with what the team wants to do, he’s actually telling others on the team why he thinks what they’re doing — and what I’m doing — doesn’t work, and he’s doing it in a very disparaging and disruptive way. It’s cutting the legs out from under all the improvements we’re trying to make. He’s poisoning the atmosphere with his negativity. I’m going to tell him he can’t do it anymore.

LK: Is the issue that Ned hasn’t accepted the new ideas and new direction? Or is it that you want him to modify his communications and the way he relates to the others?

DC: The funny thing is that eventually he gets used to whatever new thing is going on. Either he tries it and it works out okay, or it doesn’t work out so well, but he comes up with a way to improve it himself. Ned expresses initial resistance, but then he adapts. That’s not so much the problem. The real problem is the way he talks about his reactions, and the way he implies that we’re all stupid and we’re wrecking everything. I don’t even care how he feels about it anymore, he has to keep it to himself or …

LK: You really sound like you feel you need to punish him. Have you already spoken with him about his negativity? Are you afraid he won’t take your feedback?

DC: When I’ve tried to talk to him before, he’s made proclamations like, “That’s just who I am! I have negative reactions! Are you telling me I have to pretend to be someone I’m not?”

LK: Why does Ned think you’re asking him to change his personality instead of just his behavior? Have you already told him multiple times that you think he’s negative?

DC: Yes, because with every new thing we try to do [here she cited several examples], he gets negative and I have to tell him to cut it out and get the work done.

LK: Is it possible that Ned thinks you’re asking him to absorb more pain than other people have to? It certainly sounds like he feels unappreciated, unrecognized, and comparatively uncompensated, so it’s likely that his usual latent tendencies are going to be more triggered than ever.

DC: It’s not an easy time for anyone. Ned just has to keep it to himself because he drags everyone else down.

LK: I wonder if Ned doesn’t really understand what your problem is because he hasn’t figured out how to get any help with his own. All he hears is that you’re asking him to change himself — so he’s not taking in the feedback.

Put It in Neutral

I suggested to DC that it’s actually part of Negative Ned’s job to identify what isn’t working with the project logistics: In fact, she actually needs his “nose for a problem” more than ever because the project has so many additional moving parts. But he’s unhappier now and has less confidence that things will work out. That’s why his comments come out in such a negative way.

When she agreed, I upped the ante.

Applying the Positive Charge

LK: Instead of asking Ned to be someone one else or act some other way, can you ask him to do his job, helping the group members coordinate their new activities just the way he helped them coordinate the old ones — and then sharing his real concerns with you so you can try to address them? But you’ve really got to pay attention to his concerns and probe for other concerns that he’s actually holding back from raising with you, because he doesn’t want to be negative.

By the end of our talk, DC expressed her willingness to try this approach, as well as to take a larger view of the situation. I’m eager to hear how things progress.

The thing that struck me the most about the situation was how deeply both DC and Ned are committed to making things work — for themselves, for each other, and for the organization. The “problem” wasn’t due to a lack of good intent or overall effort. It arose out of different perceptions of the actual conditions on the ground, and a mutual lack of empathy and real communication.

You can’t coach people into better performance if they don’t believe you’re actively trying to help them. Whether it’s kids on a soccer team, your own family members, or the highest paid executive, people may be able to comply out of fear or threat, but they won’t really change for you unless they believe you care tremendously about them.

How much do you care about what’s best for the people you’re working to change? And how well are you letting them know?

Onward and upward,


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