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Christina Lattimer

People Development Magazine


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Dealing with Negativity at Work


As you know, in most organisations there is usually something valid to complain about, and the one described in the situation below was no different.  The trouble is of course, if complaints aren't voiced constructively and they become part of a negative moan, then the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred and people start making their own negative interpretations about the simplest of things.  When this happens, people who need to listen often just stop.
Helping complainers get what they want, if they have a genuine complaint, is definitely a good tactic.  Helping them to complain in a constructive way which speeds up the process and likelihood of them getting what they want is even better. This week’s article includes some tips and ideas on how to deal with negativity at work.  

As a result of an internal transfer, a client recently took over a new team. But he quickly realised that some of its members had a negative and unhelpful attitude.

This negativity manifested itself in a small clique complaining about customer expectations, some of their working conditions and the amount of work that they had to do (for which they believed that they got little thanks).

Although my client knew that he couldn’t let the situation continue, he felt that he didn’t have much of a lever with which to tackle it because, not only was the work being done, but fellow colleagues seemed to have a fairly neutral stance towards the others’ negativity. It seemed to have become the cultural norm.

Negativity is a badly acquired habit

Unfortunately, negativity can become an insidious habit within organisations. If such behaviour falls short of misconduct or appears not to have a detrimental effect on outcomes, however, it can seem easier to simply let it go.

Many teams that show a mixture of positivity and negativity muddle along without too much drama. Unfortunately though, even though performance may not appear to be hit, habitual negativity will inevitably prevent them from reaching standards of excellence or exceeding goals and targets.

For this reason, if you want your team to be outstanding, you need to tackle the negativity issue and, paradoxically, introduce a change of focus. Here are some tips for how to it:

  • Pay attention to negativity, but only with a view to moving the attention towards positivity
  • Don’t take the complaints personally
  • Be kind and don’t react to negativity with negativity – it simply perpetuates the habit
  • Remember that complaining is simply a form of communication, but you can teach people to communicate in more empowering ways
  • Talk to complainers on a regular basis and challenge their negative views. Do this on a one-to-one basis, if possible, as it is far more effective that way
  • Describe the impact that negativity has on the rest of the team
  • Help complainers reframe how they communicate their dissatisfaction
  • Where possible, help complainers to get what they want, but also show them possible means of communicating that will get better results
  • Be clear about the consequences of unacceptable negativity, which amounts to either attacking other people or having a detrimental impact on performance.

If you simply focus on the negativity, quite often the focus as with most things creates more of it.  You have to be able to swivel the focus from negativity to any positives, and there always are some.  Here are some ideas about how you can make sure the attention returns to the positive.

There are tactics you can use to replace negativity with positivity:

  • Reward positive behaviour and communication
  • Tell positive stories
  • Celebrate success regularly
  • Start meetings with positives. Be prepared to bring out the negatives, but ensure that you move back to the positives, ending with an upbeat summary
  • Set challenging targets and objectives that bring out the best in the team
  • Help the team to connect emotionally to its purpose and meaning and ensure that you get positive buy-in
  • Treat others on an adult-to-adult basis – and remember that negative complaining is a sign of immaturity.

Christina has managed people for twenty seven years and led hugely successful teams. She has worked with people at all levels in various organisations to help them achieve their potential, and she has been actively involved in the learning and development field in a number of different roles.

Christina is a Leadership Development coach and consultant based in North East England, working globally.

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Christina Lattimer


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