Dealing with negativity in the team

You are leading a star project team working on a challenging project when you noticed a particular team member spreading negativity, rumors among peers. You are afraid this negative behavior will bring whole team’s morale down. What would you do in this situation?

Every individual is different, and every situation is going to require a different response. Temper tantrums, sexist remarks, chronic lateness, information hoarding, playing favourites … people don’t always behave themselves at work. An adept manager needs to understand the individual nuances of the situation and act accordingly. You need finesse, insight into your team, an understanding of psychology, and often, incredible patience. Here are a few strategies that I always like to try.

1. Engage the malcontent

Quite often, the negative attitude comes from feelings of being disengaged from the team or the project. Perhaps the individual thinks he could do the job better; perhaps he isn’t working on what he wants to work on; or, just feels the project is heading in the wrong direction. Most often negativity stemming from these problems will surface in a team setting, such as passive aggressive behavior, grumbling, openly showing dislike for decisions. I like to engage this individual in finding a solution. Hand accountability to that individual and, in essence, give full reign to fix the problem. With accountability often comes responsibility — and the need to realize that decisions are not always quite as simple as they appear on the surface. Of course, sometimes the individual makes a mistake — but in this case, the lesson is still learned. They “get their way,” but also find out that “their way” wasn’t, afterall, the right way. Of course you’ve got to strive for a better outcome — assign responsibility, and then back them up. Make sure they’ve got resources and help in the decision making process. Hopefully it becomes a learning experience for everyone.

2. Reach consensus

Sometimes it’s not practical to let an individual run with their own ideas. Yet, still you have someone that feels “things” are heading in the wrong direction. I like to try to reach consensus or, failing that, at least agreement that we’ve made the right choices given what we know. One approach is to schedule a round table with the malcontent and his peers, perhaps 3-4 people. Discuss the problem, and try to reach agreement on direction. In the best case, his peers will sway his opinion. More often, the complexities, choices and decisions that have led to the current situation will be discussed — and the “black and white” situation fades in favor of many choices, and trying to make “the best one.” With a little luck, the malcontent employee walks out of the round table with two things: 1) a sense of having been engaged in the decision making process and 2) a new appreciation for the complexity at hand, and the decisions that have been made.

3. Make it clear that it’s a team effort

A one-on-one discussion goes a long way. Spend some time with the individual and really try to listen, and understand what the problem is. Come up with some mutual objectives — some things for the individual to work on (these might be soft skills, such as being less negative) as well as some things for you to work on (these will be things to help ameliorate the bad attitude, such as making sure his opinion is part of the decision process). Make sure it’s mutual, and show some real effort here — there’s tremendous value in demonstrating how much you value each individual’s contribution. Work with the individual to address the problems and find solutions.

4. If all else fails…

If you still have a problem employee on your hand after making a sincere effort to fix the problem, you’ve got to make it clear that continued negative behavior will not be tolerated. You also need to be prepared, so document the problems. Keep a record. After some time, it will become a matter of reprimanding and giving specific, required objectives. This is the worst case scenario and more often that not, the first step toward losing an employee. Sometimes it’s a “wake up call” to the individual, but often this kind of heavy-handed approach just feeds the negativity. Be prepared for either outcome.

Wayne McHale was a senior manufacturing executive when he heard reports that one of his branch offices was getting fed up with the arrogant, condescending attitude of a new manager. He decided to pay a personal visit to the office and put an end to the situation right away. “I made it absolutely clear that while we were delighted to have him on the team, certain behaviours could not be tolerated in a team environment,” says Mr. McHale. “He was taken aback, initially, because I think the behaviours were somewhat ingrained. He was a star and had been told for too long that he was wonderful.”

Whatever the case, make sure you have a good documented history. You can use it when talking about the problem with the employee, making sure you have concrete references to poor behavior. In the worst case situation, you can also use it to back up termination papers.

Above all else, don’t be an enabler

Some organizations actually nurture bad behaviour, according to Lew Bayer, president and CEO of Civility Experts Worldwide. For example, an all-star employee with a primadonna attitude may be tolerated because a manager decides it’s too costly or too much hassle to seek a replacement. Or perhaps certain rules may not apply to someone who has formed a friendship with a senior manager. In situations like this, it’s often the boss that’s the problem.

You can’t avoid dealing with workplace performance issues — it will come back to haunt you in the long term. Perhaps other employees will get fed up and quit. The problem employee might have a temper tantrum in front of a client. It’s hard to predict but one thing is almost certain: It’s going to happen at the worst time, when stress is high and a lot is on the line. Ignoring the issue won’t make it go away; it will just get worse.

Don’t wait until the problem becomes a problem for everyone. Be proactive, and recognize that the workplace is above all a place for professionalism. If your star performer is worth keeping, coaching can help. If your disaffected team member needs to feel involved, a few changes can make that happen. But, only if he’s open to the idea. If not, it may be time to take more direct action in order to preserve the integrity of your team.

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