Nipping Employee Negativity in the Bud: How to Do It and Why It’s Crucial

A talented employee with a terrible attitude can do more harm than good. Here's how to get your negative worker seeing things in a whole new light.
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Make difficult conversations about employee negativity a little easier with some tips from a management consultant. (Photo: PKpix/Shutterstock)

An employee with a negative outlook can be a real downer for your small business. In fact, a talented worker with a lousy attitude can be one of the most challenging employees to work with. If she’s getting her work done beautifully, should you look the other way when she occasionally upsets a colleague or leaves a customer feeling cold?

Actually, it’s a problem you can’t afford to ignore, says Peter Stark, a management consultant and executive coach who heads Peter Barron Stark Companies. The effort you’ll devote to doing damage control will sap your own efficiency. “A lot of leaders spend their time refereeing, when in fact their job is to improve the organization,” Stark explains.

Luckily, it often doesn’t take much to get a brusque, critical or chronically complaining employee to mend her ways. Try these expert-approved tactics.

Have a one-on-one

Start by praising your employee for something she’s recently done well, advises management consultant Chuck Underwood, founder of The Generational Imperative. That way she’ll feel you’re on her side.

Related: How to Have a Difficult Conversation with an Employee

Don’t talk about ‘tude

“Stay away from the ‘attitude’ word,” Stark advised. If your employee feels you’re criticizing her personality, she’ll only be defensive. “Instead, focus on the problem behavior,” he said. “Try saying, ‘Yesterday Mike asked you for help, and you said, ‘That’s not my job.’ How does that support our team?’”

Listen to her side of the story

Often, a negative employee will blame someone else for her actions. An excuse might be, “I wouldn’t call Chris dumb if he got me the report on time!”

Underwood suggested your reply should be a simple, “Oh?” This demonstrates that you’re supportive and gathering the information needed to smooth out any difficulties. And yes, you may need to speak to Chris later, too.

Appeal to her interest

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Discuss the repercussions of your employees’ negativity and how that may affect the company. (Photo: GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

Talk through the possible consequences of your employee’s negativity, leaving the threat of termination aside. For example, ask open-ended questions, such as, “If your problem with Chris hurts your relationship with his entire department, do you think you’ll be able to get your own work done as effectively in the future?”

Make it clear that people skills are part of the job

Spell it out, recommended Stark. “Say, ‘Our customers need someone who is knowledgeable, but also courteous and kind. This is my expectation of the staff.’” Workers (and their employers) can sometimes lose sight of these basic requirements in the rush to get a job done.

Related: Why Job Performance Reviews Are Important for Your Small Business

Keep her too busy to bellyache

Often, when an employee spends a lot of time complaining about the company and spreading discontent, it means she could stand to be a bit busier, Stark observes. So go ahead and load up your negative employee with as many new projects as you think she can handle. Pick a few that will challenge her to learn new skills and possibly rely on others’ knowledge and help. It will give her a chance to appreciate how difficult her coworkers’ jobs can be, and also make her indebted to them (and hopefully kinder).

As a last resort, let her go

You might think that since your employee seems unhappy, she’ll leave on her own soon anyway — but that’s not always the case, said Stark.

“Negative employees never leave. First, because they are negative, they imagine that the next place would only be worse. And they also worry that no one else would ever put up with their crap,” he said. So if your employee can’t or won’t change, parting ways will be on you.

Related: How to Fire Someone When it’s Time to Terminate

“Life’s too short,” noted Stark, “to work with people with rotten attitudes.”

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