How to Manage and Solve Workplace Negativity

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As a manager, supervisor, or staff member dealing with a workplace that is seething with hostility and negativity can be a major challenge. You usually don't control the situation that is causing the negativity, and no matter where the bad vibes came from, it's up to you to help make the atmosphere more positive, productive, and supportive.

How you effectively and appropriately address negativity depends on whether you control it and identifying how it started in the first place. The timeliness of your intervention also has an impact. Addressing negativity prevents workplace violence, promotes workplace safety, and creates positive employee morale.

When You Can Control or Influence the Negativity

This is a best-case scenario: You've received feedback about negative rumors and you know that the underlying cause of the negativity is based on faulty information, incorrect assumptions, or deliberate misinformation. For example:

  • You may receive feedback that a new policy or procedure is not understood correctly.
  • People may be misinterpreting a corporate memo.
  • An industry newsletter might have referenced an industry problem your company does not share.
  • You may have fired an individual who is circulating false information about the company.
  • In each of these circumstances, you have some control over the information, the situation, and communication. You can solve the problem and communicate effectively to overcome the negativity.
  • When you can control or influence the situation, use a systematic problem-solving process with the affected employees to improve the identified areas of negativity. Do this as quickly as you determine that negativity exists. (Many Human Resources offices launch a complete investigation, and by the time the facts are gathered, the negativity is out of control.)

Here, a few recommendations on how to address the negativity quickly.

  • Form a problem-solving team. Include the employees who are closest to the negative situation in the problem-solving process.
  • Do a good cause analysis so that all possible causes of the negativity are identified. It isn't enough to say, “We have low morale.” You need to identify exactly what is causing the low morale to have any chance of improving it.
  • Develop an action plan and solicit widespread input to each step of the plan so that solutions are owned across your organization.
  • Involve as many people as you can in the development of the action plan and particularly in its implementation.
  • At each step of the problem-solving process, communicate as much information as you have about the negativity and the solutions. When the solutions selected in the action plan are rolled out, people in the organization are not surprised. They have participated in the information exchange as each step or opportunity was discussed.
  • Implement the chosen solutions quickly.
  • Then, periodically assess that the plan is working.

When Employees Can't Control the Circumstances Causing the Negativity

Negativity often occurs when people experience the impact of decisions and issues that are out of their control. Examples of these include:

Under these circumstances, try some of the following ideas.

  • Identify any aspects of the situation that you can impact including providing feedback in your organization about the negative impact that is occurring. (Sometimes decisions are made and no one understands or predicts their outcome.) Sometimes you can influence an issue or a decision if you practice personal, professional courage and speak your mind.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Often people just need a sounding board. Be visible and available to staff. Proactively schedule group discussion sessions, town meetings, lunches with the manager, or one-on-one blocks of time.
  • Challenge pessimistic thinking and negative beliefs about people, the company, and the work area. Don't let negative, false statements go unchallenged. If the statements are true, provide the rationale, corporate thinking, and the events that are responsible for the negative circumstances. Share everything you know about a situation to build trust with your team.
  • Ask open-ended questions to determine the cause and the scope of the negative feelings or reaction. Maybe it's not as bad as people think; maybe their interpretation of events is faulty. Helping people identify exactly what they feel negative about is the first step in solving the problem. You can't solve a fog of unhappiness. Help people create options, feel included, and feel part of the communication and problem-solving.