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Christina's Counsel: How can I tackle my team's habitual negativity?

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30th Nov 2012
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Hello and welcome to this month’s dilemma:

The challenge   As a result of an internal transfer, a client recently took over a new team. But he quickly realised that some of its members had a negative and unhelpful attitude.      This negativity manifested itself in a small clique complaining about customer expectations, some of their working conditions and the amount of work that they had to do (for which they believed that they got little thanks).   Although my client knew that he couldn’t let the situation continue, he felt that he didn’t have much of a lever with which to tackle it because, not only was the work being done, but fellow colleagues seemed to have a fairly neutral stance towards the others’ negativity. It seemed to have become the cultural norm.   My response   Unfortunately, negativity can become an insidious habit within organisations. If such behaviour falls short of misconduct or appears not to have a detrimental effect on outcomes, however, it can seem easier to simply let it go.    Many teams that show a mixture of positivity and negativity muddle along without too much drama. Unfortunately though, even though performance may not appear to be hit, habitual negativity will inevitably prevent them from reaching standards of excellence or exceeding goals and targets.    For this reason, if you want your team to be outstanding, you need to tackle the negativity issue and, paradoxically, introduce a change of focus. Here are some tips for how to it:  

  • Pay attention to negativity, but only with a view to moving the atmosphere towards positivity
  • Don't take the complaints personally
  • Be kind and don’t react to negativity with negativity - it simply perpetuates the habit
  • Remember that complaining is simply a form of communication, but you can teach people to communicate in more empowering ways
  • Talk to complainers on a regular basis and challenge their negative views. Do this on a one-to-one basis, if possible, as it is far more effective that way
  • Describe the impact that negativity has on the rest of the team
  • Help complainers reframe how they communicate their dissatisfaction
  • Where possible, help complainers to get what they want, but also show them possible means of communicating that will get better results
  • Be clear about the consequences of unacceptable negativity, which amounts to either attacking other people or having a detrimental impact on performance.

  In order to replace negativity with positivity, ensure that you:  

  • Reward positive behaviour and communication
  • Tell positive stories
  • Celebrate success regularly
  • Start meetings with positives. Be prepared to bring out the negatives, but ensure that you move back to the positives, ending with an upbeat summary
  • Set challenging targets and objectives that bring out the best in the team
  • Help the team to connect emotionally to its purpose and meaning and ensure that you get positive buy-in
  • Treat others on an adult-to-adult basis – and remember that negative complaining is a sign of immaturity.

 Christina Lattimer is director and owner of HR and leadership development consultancy, People Discovery.   If you have an HR problem and don’t know what to do, send her an email to Christina’[email protected]. All problems will be treated in the strictest confidence and, if published, will be made suitably anonymous.

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By Mr_Lizard
04th Dec 2012 11:39

Do the people who are being negative actually have a point?  Is there a genuine, workplace-based problem that's making everyone miserable, or are they just having a bit of a mump and a moan because it's cheap entertainment?

If the former, then you'd better fix it, figure out who can fix it if you can't, or identify why it can't be fixed. 

If the latter, then it's just a bad habit, and the approaches you describe stand a good chance of being able to change it into a good habit.

If it's a genuine problem, ask for solutions from the loudest complainers.  "What would you like to do about it?"  has a number of successful outcomes.  Either they don't want the work/responsibility for dealing with it, and they'll quieten down; or they do, and they know what's wrong, and they've been itching to deal with it.

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