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The Do’s and Don’ts of Managing a Negative Employee


The Do’s and Don’ts of Managing a Negative Employee

Be honest, did you have someone in mind when you opened this article? Don’t worry, most of us do at some point!  It’s tempting to shy away from managing a negative employee. The challenge to overcome it can seem like a confrontation but it doesn’t have to be. Most people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad teams or managers, so managing negativity is key to reducing the cost of staff retention.

See some do’s and don’ts below to help you overcome this challenge. Which will work for you?  

DON’T dismiss or ignore the negative behaviour

Don't brush off negative behaviour as that person’s natural temperament which you can't do anything about. If one of your employees seems a little off for a few days you can put it down to them. Let them breathe a little, we are human and we go up and down. However, if your employee is negative for a significant period of time that's on you because at that point it becomes a management issue.  People aren't always aware of how they come across so the first step is to acknowledge the negative behaviour. When you don’t challenge a negative attitude… enable it. In the end that boils down to poor leadership, and your colleagues and your team will not thank you for it.

DON’T make the issue about the person, make it about the behaviour

When you confront your negative employee, don’t make it about them. Make it about the behaviour and use an example. Just one or two, not more (or it will sound like a rant.) Never tell a person they are negative. That will just cause a confrontation and will have little productive impact.  Bring up a particular behaviour and explain how that behaviour made you feel. How that behaviour can be perceived.  For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you sigh a lot, that makes me feel like you are exasperated about something? What do you think is behind this? What can I do to help?’

DON’T forget to set a performance review date

 Whenever you address an issue with the purpose of implementing change (in this case a change of attitude) you need to set a review date. This puts a turnaround time on the issue and people work harder when they know there is going to be a follow up.  Check if you have accomplished what you set out to do to overcome the problem in the first meeting. Address what has gone right so far and what, if anything, hasn’t worked.

DO be careful that their behaviour isn't a response to your own behaviour

Have you ever confronted someone about their behaviour only for them to accuse you of the very same thing? It could be a case of the mirroring effect. Mirroring is a very powerful psychology where we unconsciously mimic the behaviours of others. We aren’t always aware of ourselves and how our behaviour affects other people. Are you absolutely certain you aren’t exhibiting negative or moody behaviours yourself? The only way to find out is to get feedback from that employee. Ask questions like ‘How can the different ways we work together be improved? How do you think we can improve communication between us? Can you give me an example of when you felt I wasn’t fair? What communication technique do you respond to best? How you feel I could listen to you better?’ Put it on them!

DO reinforce positive behaviours

When your colleague is negative, the seemingly logical thing to do is to highlight the negative behaviour as it happens. However, positive reinforcement is even more powerful. No one is all bad! Make a point to highlight their positive behaviours precisely when they happen.  It’s all positive behaviour including good work, a good email both to a group and to you, or something they say. Maybe they gave you a cheery greeting, respond back warmly and add ‘love your energy today!’

DO remind them that their attitude is a choice

A person’s natural reaction to being told they have a bad attitude towards something is to blame their attitude on the situation. This is wholeheartedly incorrect. How you genuinely feel about a situation is far less within your control, but your attitude towards how you deal with it is entirely your own choice. Do remind them that their attitude is a choice.  If a bad the employee's attitude is down to a personal problem, show compassion and how you are going to help them manage it at work, without disregarding the behaviour.

DO turn their complaining into constructive feedback

If the negative employee is constantly moaning (as this is often the case), tell them that you welcome their feedback and that you’d like to address it a weekly/monthly meeting. The next time they moan, tell them to add that concern to the next meeting. When they moan again, tell them to add it to the list. This will suggest that you are interested in addressing their concerns but most importantly, protect yourself and your colleagues from ongoing negativity. During that meeting, you’ll actually have the time to turn those complaints into genuine solutions. You can bet your bottom dollar most of those complaints won’t even make it to the meeting, as they only stemmed from impulsive negative behaviour anyway!

DO know when it’s time to let them go

Ultimately, a negative employee and an ongoing attitude are both detrimental to you and your team. It's costly, due to a negative impact on performance, its costly due to the lack of team cohesion it creates, and its detrimental to the wellbeing of both the employee and their colleagues. You must check you have done everything you can to address a negative employee. However, you cannot let one rotten apple spoil the whole bag. Know when it’s time to follow protocol and let them go, and ensure you use this to emphasize the traits required for your new hire!

Have you ever found yourself working with a negative colleague? What trick worked for you?

Charles Kyriakou, Surgical Consultant at Projectus Consulting. 

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