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Combating Negativity in the Workplace

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Years of research has confirmed what most business owners already know: Negativity in the workplace leads to absenteeism, low morale, and lost productivity. The tangible results of negativity can be measured in employee turnover, chronic lateness, mistakes and accidents, and serious health issues.

Left unchecked, a culture of negativity costs companies big money, as much as $3 billion annually in the United States alone, according to Gallup. Negativity at work can manifest itself in several ways. Key signs that negativity is brewing include the following:

  • You overhear employees muttering bitter comments such as “It’s not my problem,” “Only an hour before I get out of here,” or “Sure, knock yourself out, but I doubt anyone will care.”
  • You notice that employees are snapping at each other, coming in late and leaving early, and not completing assigned tasks.
  • You observe employees frowning or looking away when you or other managers speak.

Facing the Problem

Confront signs of negativity early. This may be as simple as pulling an offending employee aside and pointing out the unacceptable behavior. You may learn that there is something behind it, a problem in the workplace or with co-workers that you can help solve. If the problems come from outside of work, offer a sympathetic ear so the employee has positive associations with being at work rather than negative ones.

Combating negativity in one or two employees is one thing, but you face a bigger challenge if it has spread throughout certain groups. Depending on how bad the situation is, you may need to move some members of a disgruntled group to other assignments so they have less contact with one another each day. Breaking up the group gives the individual employees opportunities to connect with other members of your staff and improve their behavior.

Most group behavior is driven by one or two ringleaders. It’s in your interest to meet with these individuals to determine if they have a legitimate complaint you can help resolve. Show you care about their concerns and they are likely to spread those feelings among their group. You can even end up with a strong ally by working with a group leader.

In some cases, however, you may need to take disciplinary action against those employees if the situation does not improve. Though this may appear harsh to other employees, it sends a clear signal that you will not tolerate negative behavior in the workplace. Mend relations with others in the group by meeting with them to find out what the issues are and how they think the problems can be solved. Be ready to listen and make changes where appropriate.

When the Problem Is Systemic

Negativity doesn’t usually brew in a bubble. Whether you realize it or not, you may be contributing to the poor atmosphere. Assess your company management and operations for these potential catalysts of negative attitudes:

  • Poor performers reap rewards while top performers languish. At some companies, weak employees get moved up and around more often than good employees because managers and supervisors want to hold on to their favorites. The best employees get more and more work and fewer promotions precisely because they are good workers, and burnout and resentment ensue.
  • Individual team members don’t receive deserved credit. Teams are typically established with the best intentions. Members do their part, but inevitably a few team members get all the glory. This can breed discontent. No matter how small, praise individual contributions for the success of the whole.
  • Top echelon employees are laden with praise, benefits, and rewards while front-line and other workers are ignored. This attitude is rampant in many large corporations, and it has profound long-term effects on morale, productivity, and loyalty.

It’s no surprise that employee negativity often stems from feeling unappreciated. Simply recognizing employees and the work they do can solve many, if not most, negativity issues.

Finally, check your own attitude and actions and evaluate how well you’re doing at instilling a good atmosphere at work. Are you coming in tired, irritable, or stressed? If so, you’re likely spreading that to your staff. A positive boss is more likely to have positive, productive employees. Remember, optimism is contagious, too.


Andrea Poe is the author of hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics, including small business.

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