How to Manage a Negative Employee

An employee sitting in a meeting showing a negative reaction and upsetting other employees at the meeting.
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A negative employee or co-worker can infect a workgroup or a team with negativity faster than you can imagine. Many suggestions appear in management books and websites to help deal with an employee's negative attitude. Managers and co-workers are advised to listen, redirect, and work towards a solution with the contrary employee.

When We Can Work It out Doesn't Work

Sometimes the employee knows they are the problem but need advice on how to handle their negative feelings. It's difficult to 'fess up, but sometimes the negative coworker is you. It takes a degree of self-awareness that many employees are incapable of practicing.

At times, coworkers are successful in dealing with a negative member of the team. However, most employees are not skilled, trained, or comfortable at handling the conflict. They will often turn to the manager for help in dealing with the coworker.

It is not the most pleasant component of a manager’s job, but if you manage people, you will eventually encounter a situation in which you need to manage a negative person—for the sake of your other employees and the team. To avoid this sometimes scary task is to let down your workgroup and allow an unconscionable situation to exist.

You can manage a negative employee—and sometimes—you can help the employee turn the negativity around. Your best approach is not to let the negativity get started in the first place.

Convey Their Negative Impact on the Team

Use specific examples that describe behaviors the employee can do something about in the workplace. For example, when another employee says, “Good morning, how are you?” and your response is a 15-minute monolog on how nothing is right in this workplace, you bring your coworker’s mood and optimism down.
You use up to 15 minutes of productive work time and make your coworker unwilling to engage with you in conversation in the future. You risk your coworkers avoiding you at all costs which will affect your work effectiveness and productivity. You will not receive the information that you need to perform your job or make important contributions.

Avoid Becoming Defensive

Don’t take the employee’s negative words or attitude personally. They are not directed at you. For whatever reason, the employee is unhappy with his or her life, work, or you name it. No one likes hearing constructive feedback even when a manager uses the best, most practiced, approach to minimize the employee’s defensiveness. And, the majority of managers have not had a lot of training and practice in dealing with difficult people, so their approach is uncomfortable for all parties.

Ask About Problems Outside Work

For example, a divorce affects every aspect of an employee’s life. The loss of a close family member does, too. You’re not a therapist or counselor, but knowing what is happening in the employee's life lets you offer sympathy or another appropriate expression of good or hopeful wishes. It can also help the employee see that you are interested in and concerned about them as a person. Even as you offer sympathy, though, you must ask the employee to keep the personal issues from affecting their workplace performance.

Use Active Listening

Listen to the employee’s complaints and concerns until you’re certain that the employee feels heard out and listened to. Sometimes people repeat negative sentiments because they don’t feel as if you have really heard them. Make sure that you have actively listened. The employee will feel the difference.
Some of the employee’s concerns may be legitimate. You may be able to help them solve legitimate workplace concerns. Others, you may be able to explain why they exist and ask the employee to cooperate and have patience. Once the employee understands the timeline, the decision or the reason for the goal, their negativity may improve.

Focus on Creating Solutions

Don’t focus on everything that is wrong and negative about the employee’s outlook or actions in your approach. It will only cause the employee to dig himself more deeply into their grievances.
Focus instead on creating options for how the employee can create positive morale for themselves and their co-workers going forward. If the person is unwilling to hold this discussion, and you feel you have fairly heard him out, end the discussion. You may need to begin the process of disciplinary action to reinforce the concepts you are sharing with the employee.

Help Build Work Self-Image

Help the employee build their self-image and capacity to contribute. Talk to their about what they have done well and what their coworkers and you appreciate their performance. Even during a conversation about a negative aspect of performance, reflecting on the positive is a welcome addition.

Create Positive Interactions

Any time you hear a positive statement or contribution rather than negativity from them, reinforce this attitude. You'll want to reinforce, as much as possible, the positive interactions the employee has with other employees and the workplace.

If none of the above is working and the employee’s negativity continues to have an impact on productivity, workplace harmony, and department members’ attitudes and morale, deal with the negativity as you would any other performance issue. Use progressive discipline which you apply effectively and legally to the employee's performance.

Remember that these seven steps are worth your time before you become mired in the process of disciplinary action. Take heart from the fact that they frequently work when you hit an employee's negativity head-on in your workplace.