Managing Team Negativity

Overcoming a Pessimistic Environment

Managing Team Negativity - Overcoming a Pessimistic Environment

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No matter what is happening, there is always a bright side.

It can be incredibly hard to work with, and manage, people who have a negative attitude. These people seem to reject new ideas automatically, and they can often view change with distrust.

Although negativity may at first seem like just an annoyance, it can spread quickly through a team or organization, resulting in increased absenteeism, higher staff turnover, lower morale, and decreased productivity. So how can you stop it?

Everyone in an organization should assume some responsibility for stamping out negativity. But managing negativity in a team and organization is especially important for leaders and managers. In this article, we'll examine ways to manage negativity within your team, and in your organization.

Managing Your Own Attitude

A team's mindset and attitude often come from "the top," from managers and from other influential people in the team or organization. So, before you search for the root causes of your team's negativity, it's important to look at your own attitude first.

Even if you think that you have a positive attitude, ask yourself the following questions, and think about whether you could be contributing to other people's negativity with your own attitude and actions:

  • Do you come to work every day with a positive attitude?
  • Do you have high morale?
  • Do you manage your emotions effectively?
  • Do you engage in office politics?
  • Do you complain about personal or work-related issues with your team?
  • Do you listen actively to your team members?
  • Do you listen with empathy when people have a problem?
  • Are you a good communicator?
  • Do you balance constructive criticism with praise, and give well-rounded feedback?
  • Do you publicly recognize the efforts of your team?
  • Do you provide guidance to those who depend on your leadership?
  • Do you set reachable goals for your team?

A key part of this is understanding the differences between being negative and offering constructive criticism.

Negativity is making a hurtful comment, such as "Your presentation was really boring, Bob." Nothing productive results from negative comments like these.

Constructive criticism brings attention to issues in a diplomatic way, and it also offers a solution, such as "Your presentation had some good information, Bob, but it was a bit slow at times. Can you stay within a 10-minute limit next time?"

Looking honestly at your own actions, and their impact on your team, may be challenging. But it's an important first step in dealing with your team's negativity. After all, it's far easier to change your own behaviors than it is to change someone else's.


If you believe that you might be a cause of your team's negativity, these resources will help manage your negativity and improve your motivation:

Dealing With the Causes of Negativity

Once you've looked at your own attitude, it's important to deal with other possible causes of negativity, where these are within your control.

Firstly, identify the possible causes. Tools such as Root Cause Analysis and Cause and Effect Analysis will help you to do this.

Then identify solutions to the causes, and implement them if possible. (Pareto Analysis is a useful tool for helping you decide which changes will give you the biggest benefits.)

During this stage, it's important to stay in constant communication with people in your team, and to include them in the process where appropriate. If you don't make changes for any reason, feed this back to your team – honesty and open communication will help deal with negative thinking.

For issues that are out of your own personal control, consider enlisting the help of your own manager or executive team so that they can help you implement change where this is necessary.

Dealing With Change Effectively

Often, negative attitudes develop because organizations don't handle change effectively. So when you make any changes, ensure that everyone is kept up-to-date with what's happening.

Gary Topchik, author of "Managing Workplace Negativity," identifies five requirements for getting a team to feel positive about an upcoming change. He says that people must:

  1. Know why the change is taking place.
  2. Understand the benefits of the change.
  3. Know what skills they'll need to develop to use the new way of working.
  4. Understand what action they'll need to take when the change occurs.
  5. Know what resources will be provided to them to help them change.

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Make sure that you address these points. Then take a look at our article on Kotter's 8-Step Change Model to find out how to plan for and manage change successfully.

Negativity in Your Team and Organization

Once you've examined your own attitudes and behavior, and have identified possible causes of negativity, you can also consider the following strategies to deal with negativity in those you're managing:

  • Meet with negative people one-on-one – Identify the team members who cause the most problems, and write down specific examples that illustrate how this person's negative attitude impacts the team's productivity and effectiveness.

    Then meet with him one-on-one to discuss his behavior. Ask him the reason why he has a negative attitude, and identify if there is anything that you or your organization could do to help him change that attitude. Also, ask open-ended questions that challenge his negative thinking – he might then see that things aren't as bad as he thinks.

    It's also important to highlight how his behavior is affecting the team. Make sure that you're specific, and discuss the changes that you want to see in his behavior.

  • Encourage people to "talk" about their negative feelings – Giving a voice to negative feelings often helps eliminate them. Suggest that your team members carry a small notebook or digital recorder with them. When they're feeling negative, they should note down their feelings, or talk about them on the recorder.

    This will provide an outlet to express their negativity without passing it along to you or a colleague. It will also help them challenge negative thoughts rationally and fairly: this is a key step in dealing with negative thinking.

  • Focus on the present – Negativity often occurs when people think about the past or worry about the future. So encourage people to focus on what's happening now.
  • Give team members a time limit for being negative – For instance, if your meetings tend to turn into complaint sessions, set a timer for five minutes. Allow everyone to complain as much as they want during that time. But as soon as the time is up, the negativity stops and it's not allowed for the rest of the session.
  • Engage your team members – Some people are negative at work because they're not engaged in what they're doing. Make sure your people aren't stressed or burned out, and that you have the right people in the right roles. Getting people involved in the right way will help re-engage your team.
  • Teach positive thinking skills – Just as you can teach yourself to think positively (see the tip box above), you can help others do the same. If people are receptive to it, teach them to think in a more positive way.

If your team's negativity is the result of an overall negative organizational culture, changing this will probably require a significant team effort between you, your boss, and other leaders in the organization.

Try these tips to pinpoint the causes of company-wide negativity:

  • Meet with the leadership team in your organization – A change in attitude must start at the top, and the leadership team needs to recognize that there's a problem.
  • Send out an employee satisfaction survey – Ask staff specific questions about what it's like to come into work every day. Meet with top management again to discuss the survey results and to brainstorm ways to address common complaints. Remember, attitudes will change only if you take action!
  • Take action based on the results of your research.

Key Points

Negativity in your team or organization can spread quickly if it's not stopped. Working in a negative atmosphere causes high staff turnover, low productivity, and low morale.

First, determine if your own attitude and actions are causing your team's negativity. Then, identify causes of negativity and make changes as appropriate. You can also meet one-on-one with negative team members, and explain how their attitude impacts you and the team. Be clear about what changes you expect.

If negativity is common in your organization, then collaborate with other leaders. Consider sending out a satisfaction survey to identify issues, and keep workers up-to-date on large-scale changes.