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Beating Negativity In Teams

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It only takes one toxic employee—or manager—to pull the entire team down. Recognize the signs before it's too late.

There is a truth about negativity isn’t often recognized until it is too late. This truth is that negativity is the only cancer that spreads by contact. It only takes a single carrier to infect others with their negativity, and once it starts to spread, it’s difficult to arrest its progress.

To beat negativity in your teams, you need a set of practical strategies that will allow you to identify the source or sources of the negativity. Some sources may come from challenges of the team’s work, and other sources may be leadership. These sources may play a role in creating negativity within a team.

After spending over three decades in staffing, I have had a front row view of how negativity starts and how it spreads through a team-or a company. One leader of an administrative team started by complaining to their peers. Many people complain, but few know how effective it is when spreading negativity.

Complaining can be helpful for identifying a problem, but the downside is that it causes others to avoid the person who complains. Here, the leader ensured everyone on their team was negative until each target quit the company. Only then did this leader quit their job. In the story above, someone should have intervened as soon as they recognized the leader was constantly complaining.

Sources of Negativity

Here is a list of sources of negativity that can cause your team to become negative. You may have more than one source causing the negativity that harms employees and their results.

Unaddressed Problems

It isn’t easy to be a leader. You may already have enough work you must take work home with you at night. However, every unaddressed problem is a potential source of negativity. Problems don’t age well, and tiny monsters grow up to be much larger and more difficult monsters.

One strategy that can help you address a problem before it causes your team to become negative is to use a “Fire Board.” A Fire Board is a list of the problems or challenges you need to address. The list allows you to put the problems in an order of importance, working on the worst one first. By removing that problem, you prevent your team believing you don’t care, something they may believe is neglect.

Unaddressed problems and employee engagement: According to a report by the consulting firm Gallup, only 33% of U.S. employees were engaged at work as of 2020. One significant factor contributing to this low level is unaddressed workplace problems, which create barriers to engagement.

A Toxic Employee

It takes only one person to ruin a team by being negative and intentionally convincing others to join in the negativity. One person I know was incredibly negative. He spent all his time suggesting that his CEO was wrong about how their sales team should sell. This toxic person caused several of the team to quit, even though he stayed.

The CEO is a nice and caring person. He doesn’t particularly love conflict, and his unwillingness to do something about the toxic employee. While he waited for this salesperson’s contract to run out, half the sales force was gone.

To beat negativity in your team, you can allow no person to become toxic. There are only two possible choices you can make. The first choice should be trying to help the person change their attitude before they harm others. You want clean hands, which means you do your best to turn the person around. You want to treat the toxic person like you would want your children to be treated if they were in this position. Your team will see you trying to help them, proving you did your best to save them.

Should you fail to turn them around, you must remove them from your team before others fall under their spell and become negative themselves.

A Harvard Business School paper showed that avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than $12,000 in turnover costs.

General negativity and productivity: According to a study published in “Human Resource Management Review,” workplace negativity could cost U.S. companies an estimated $3 billion annually in lost productivity.

Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Because I have had more time than most dealing with the challenges of workplaces, I have seen employees become negative due to ambiguity and uncertainty. One client was put in a new role as a leader. Her team would come to her for answers, but she had not been given a set of objectives, her roles, and responsibilities. The more people asked her for help, the more helpless she felt until she became negativity.

You can eliminate some amount of risk of individuals becoming negative by ensuring they know what they need to do, how they need do it, and when it needs to be done. We sometimes believe people know more than they know. You are better off ensuring everyone is trained and can grow through development programs.

Ambiguity and employee satisfaction: A study published in “Academy of Management Journal” found that role ambiguity negatively correlates with job satisfaction. Employees who are not clear about their roles and responsibilities are more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs.

A note for management: negative leader will eventually end up with a negative team. The leader is always responsible for their team, which means you must prevent a negative team or culture. Office politics can also create negativity, especially if things seem unfair.

Look for the sources of negativity in your company, many of which may not be found on this list. Ask others on your team to look for negativity or the sources that might cause negativity before he takes hold. You may need help from your leadership or human resources.


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