Navigating negativity

Jun 01, 2018
If your workplace is being held hostage to a toxic atmosphere, it is time to tackle the issue head on.

They notice every minor fault. They dampen a productive conversation with a mean-spirited put-down. They find no pleasure in success and their greatest joy is nit-picking every management decision. Chronic complainers are hard work, dispiriting and difficult to manage. Working with a negative colleague can be depressing yet if not addressed, the constant complaining can infect the workplace with negativity. How do you deal with it?

Acknowledge the problem

Dismissing a negative colleague as simply somebody who is having a bad day undermines the feelings of those who have to work in close proximity to the negativity. Management must first recognise that there is a problem. One way of doing this is by tuning into the emotional temperature of your office. Is it upbeat and friendly? Is it downbeat and cold? Are people tiptoeing around someone? Attuning yourself to this type of data can give you an insight into the experience of your staff.

Are they right?

It is easy to place the blame for a toxic office atmosphere on one person. It is more difficult to ask whether they might actually be right. Does the nit-picker have a point? Are they pointing out (albeit irritatingly) a pattern of problematic decision-making or highlighting an office issue that is simply being ignored? Asking this type of question may allow you to view the problem in a systemic context. Sometimes, complainers complain because it is an effective means of drawing attention to what is being covered up or ignored by the wider organisation. In this sense, complaining can be seen as a style of whistle-blowing.

If they are not…

If you are certain that you have a lone complainer and that they are impacting negatively on the atmosphere in the office, then it is time to take action. Ignoring the mounting tension or trying to rationalise the individual’s behaviour will only damage your credibility in the long run. Here are three strategies to deal with the situation:

  • Create clear expectations for workplace engagement. Make staff accountable not just for reporting what isn’t working, but for contributing to what is. Moaning about the negative co-worker beside the water cooler is contributing to the atmosphere, not alleviating it. Dealing directly with workplace behaviour by discussing it with line managers is a more honest way of addressing the atmosphere;
  • What does your staff member hope to gain by complaining in this way? Complaining is an attention-seeking behaviour that immediately gets results, either informal or formal. Listen for what the complainer is really getting at – it is most likely some kind of unmet need, vulnerability or a sense that they are being ignored or not being heard. There may be a more subtle way of reducing the negativity by focusing on a positive intervention; and
  • If all else fails, refer the complainer to a business coach and set out clear areas for development. It is perfectly reasonable to expect a staff member to complete a course of coaching if you believe their behaviour is having a negative impact on performance or morale.
There is rarely a ‘one size fits all’ solution to chronic complainers but everyone is in agreement that a healthy workplace cannot be held hostage to a toxic atmosphere. Hiring the right people may be the first step, but dealing with the fall-out of a negative colleague may be one of the ongoing challenges of managing people at work.

Dr Annette Clancy is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at University College Dublin and ran her own consultancy practice for over 17 years prior to joining UCD.