Dealing with negative team members

I’ve worked with countless teams over the years. In that time I’ve witnessed my share of ‘negative people’. They used to really frustrate me, and even at times get me down. You know the people – who always see the dark side of a situation, who are suspicious of positives, who always seem to be complaining about something, anything…everything!

As I’ve worked more and more with teams, I’ve stopped getting frustrated, and definitely stopped letting it get me down. Because I realised a few things about these people.

  1. They are generally just everyday, normal people. They are not necessarily bad people, they just have a lot of negative things to say.
  2. Labelling them as ‘negative people’ is not helpful, or kind. Maybe they are not always negative, maybe there’s something going on that has led them to focus on issues instead of solutions…they are, first and foremost people.
  3. Empathy is important. If we’re assuming they are doing this on purpose, or trying to be difficult leads to negative feelings toward them, and a reinforcement in our brains that this person might be a threat. Then every time they say something else that is negative, no matter how slight, it triggers and emotion that further reinforces they are a threat and we should avoid them. So empathy helps us try and see another perspective – maybe there are other reasons for them acting this way, perhaps they are trying to be helpful in raising issues, maybe they have a solution yet we tune out because we see them as not positive, maybe there are some tough things going on for them.
  4. Many of these people do not actually realise that they are being labeled as negative, avoided by their colleagues because of their attitude, and seen as a burden by their manager. This might be because their intent is genuinely good – they see their comments as coming from a helpful place. Perhaps they are not lucky enough to have developed their self awareness or been given feedback.
  5. Maybe they simply don’t know how to change their approach, or think differently.

The vast majority of people do not get up in the morning and think – “How can I make someone’s life miserable today? How can I be difficult? Who will I negatively impact?”

Yes, like anything, there are exceptions – yet generally your colleagues, team members, patients and clients do not set out in the day with the objective to make you dislike them, feel uncomfortable or frustrated. Truly.

What vs. How distinction.

When working with people having a negative bent I do find that frequently they will justify their actions – and if it’s a long term trait they are often very good at rationalising why they raise issues or point out the negative. In fact, as a manager, I’ve had the odd person over the years turn it back onto me and it becomes my fault. I get it, they are trying to defend themselves, it’s human nature if they feel criticised.

Yet while there may be reasonable explanations for people saying something negative, it comes back to the fact that it is usually not WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it that is the issue.

People on the receiving end, or in the vicinity of negative comments, issues or complaints are often more impacted by the HOW, than the WHAT.

It can be draining and frustrating being around people behaving in this way. It’s tiring. Much of the energy-zapping comes from how they say what they want to say.

Let’s look at an example…

Someone complains about a policy being changed. There may be some legitimate concerns with benefit in discussing.

Option 1 to raise concerns: “Why do we ALWAYS have to change things here? That will NEVER work, it’s a stupid idea…” <insert accusatory tone and body language to go with this!>

Notice the  catastrophising – using words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’. The insult – ‘stupid idea’. And the lack of any attempt to see a positive side in a balanced fashion, be specific about what the issue is, or to find a solution to the challenge. It’s just mostly negative, unhelpful and a little bit rude.

Option 2 to raise concerns: “I’m concerned about the negative impacts of this. Can you help me understand this better?” or “Could I raise a concern and we find a solution?” or “I can see that there might be some benefits…I’m worried about one thing…perhaps we could approach it slightly differently..”

Option 2 is a different approach. One that is more likely to have those around you thinking you are reasonable, balanced and solutions-focussed. Rather than someone seeking to blame, discredit and resist.

People overall want to work with those who are pleasant to deal with, who work with you to overcome challenges, who collaborate with the team (not against it) who have nice things to say about others. People who can raise issues without destroying the mood of those around them. People who are a force for good, ultimately looking for a good outcome, even in tough times.

How to address this?

So this brings us to what do we do as a manager if we have someone who is frequently negative and is impacting those around them – creating team divisions, or even just bringing people down?

There are 4 main things I’d recommend starting with:

  1. Adopt a coaching approach
  2. Be clear on expectations and follow up
  3. Address team culture issues
  4. Get curious and connect

Adopt a coaching approach.

If you have a team member who is impacting others with negative comments and attitude, then start this today. I have always considered coaching as a way of leading others – not a one-off, formal process, not something to roll out when there are issues. It’s something you do all day, every day – it’s the WAY you manage and lead. Coaching helps involve people in decisions, helps them see they have choice, enables them to take ownership of their words and actions, and encourages them to take responsibility for achieving goals. So when your team member says “This is a stupid idea, it will never work!” you breathe, focus your logical brain and reply – “Thanks for your openness to give feedback. I’d like to understand more about the challenges you see and how you think we can resolve them.”  Basically I’m recommending that when something negative is raised, get curious rather than judgemental – “Help me understand your concerns” and “What are possible ways we could address this issue?”

Be clear on expectations and follow up.

This relates to your expectations for a discussion, how tasks are performed and interpersonal interactions. If you’ve not been explicit in the past, it will take time and perseverance. It’s worth it.

For a discussion, this could be setting expectations for the outcomes of the discussion, people’s involvement, how issues are raised and addressed.

For a task, you are setting expectations about things such as what the outcome will be, timeframes, and any boundaries that exist – such as when you need a progress update, and who else needs to be involved.

For interpersonal interactions, you are being clear on what you expect to see – and not see – when the team interact with each other, those outside the team and patients or clients as the case may be.

There’s no point having expectations if we do not follow up though. This comes down to praise it when you see it and call it when you don’t. By this I mean, assuming your expectations are set in the positive – this is what I expect to see – then when you see it, give positive feedback. When you see the opposite, it’s time to call it and have a courageous conversation to provide that person with feedback.

You have to call out behaviour that is negatively impacting someone’s performance, or the people around them. Please don’t avoid it or ignore it, as it will only make things harder for you in the long term!

Address team culture issues.

This is partially dealt with by points 1 and 2. And it also looks at the team level, rather than an individual. It’s making sure that the culture is not creating the issue of negativity.

How do the team interact with each other? Do they work well together? Do they have a shared purpose and vision? How are conflict dealt with? How do the team communicate with each other?

Where there are issues, address them – whether that’s growing appreciation of each others’ strengths and experiences, encouraging open and honest feedback, training people on effective communication…whatever the gap might be, get involved and find ways to build a better culture. Even if you think it’s pretty good, take it to the next level.

You can not stop thinking about team culture – regularly consider it and take action.

Get curious and connect

The fourth recommendation is to get to know the person being negative. Get curious and get creative about connecting with their inner positive.

What’s important to them? Is this causing them to respond negatively or emotionally? Can we turn that important thing into a way for them to take positive action? For example – if they are often talking about issues that impact patients – can we not say “I’m so pleased that the patient experience is top of mind. How can we ensure this is a positive experience for them?”

Finding a way to connect is crucial. It might even reveal some hidden strengths, a reason for the negativity and a way to move forward more positively.

If you would like to know more about how to coach, set expectations, give feedback or impact team culture, then you are in luck! Our members community has training and resources on these topics. Better yet, we have discussion forums where we can ask specific questions and share ideas. We are in the forums every day answering questions, giving suggestions and helping healthcare leaders tackle their team challenges. Click here to find out more.

Here’s to creating extraordinary teams!




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