How to address negativity in the team?

This week I am pondering negativity… Have you ever worked with someone that was consistently negative? Someone who struggled to see the positive in anything throughout the day? Who focused on what was wrong with the team and the world, rather than what was right?

It’s amazing what impact a negative team member can have. Actually, I don’t really like labelling them as a ‘negative team member’. They are a team member who tends to draw attention to the negative, or to dwell on the negative aspects of people, work and sometimes life.

This could be someone who’s approach to the workplace is negative; their approach to their manager other team members is negative. Perhaps even their interactions with, or comments about clients or patients is negative.

The funny thing is, those with a negative leaning are not ‘bad’ people. They are not necessarily people who want to be disruptive or unhelpful. They just have a negativity bent or bias.

Over the years, I’ve watched other people with a negativity bent interact with their managers, colleagues and customers. It’s intrigued me.

How to navigate negativity in the team?

Navigating the world of negativity in a team is not easy. And it does not always work out. You can’t always influence the behaviour to become positive. Yet what you can do is try. And in trying, you set the scene for improved team performance and culture.

Firstly, where does that negativity come from? Does that person set out every day to negatively impact others? Most likely not. In fact, some people do not even realise that they can be coming across as ‘negative’.

When we see someone focusing on the negative, it’s the outward display of their inner thoughts and feelings. Some people are prone to seemingly more negative thoughts and feelings than others. This is a complex phenomenon.

Life is intrinsically full of events and interactions to which we respond. Our response to social interaction events is dependent on how we psychologically interpret these events.

Our brain likes us to be ‘safe’!

Now our brain is designed to keep us safe. If something in our environment is considered a threat, then a complex series of reactions occur to prepare the body for flight, fight or freeze, in order to keep us safe. The problem is, this survival, rapid response instinct can over-react and set these reactions in play before our conscious and logical brain has a chance to catch up. In some cases, our thinking/decision making brain areas catch up and process the information, determining that it is, after-all, not a dangerous threat, and our emotions and responses can calm as we consider or rationalise the information.

Yet sometimes the emotional initial response wins and we respond on instinct. And it can play out behaviourally. So we might see a team member appearing frustrated, or using strong language, or raising their voice. We might see them withdraw and not engage with others, or we might see them walk away from an interaction. We often see them using negative phrases, frequently being critical or focusing on challenges in negative ways – e.g. “This will never work!”

They may not even realise…

A team member’s behaviour may be coming from deep-seated emotional responses. And sometimes they are not even totally aware of a pattern of negative behaviour. For various reasons, over time their responses may have become habitual, they might have been rewarded by managers who gave in to their demands, or paid them extra attention, they may not have been given feedback they could work on, their beliefs and values may lead them to think they are fighting for justice and doing a positive thing.

What impact does negativity have on the team and its performance?

We humans are wired to detect the emotions of others. And emotions can be contagious – we can mimic or mirror someone’s emotions. We actually have neurons called ‘mirror neurons’ that help us understand the intent of others, and it’s believed that these are involved in mood contagion.

Different people are more susceptible to catching the emotions of others, and this can also be impacted by their own past experiences or present situation. Someone who themselves is tired or overwhelmed, for example, might more easily succumb to the ‘misery loves company’ when a team mate is complaining about their work or their boss! This contagion can fuel and exaggerate a situation. And this negativity or spiral effect is tiring – because being on alert or in a threat state is consuming energy.

Think about when you have had to interact with someone who was negative – whether that was expressed in an angry way, a despondent way, or as complaints.

Even if we don’t get dragged into the contagious nature of someone’s mood, it can still impact us. It can be draining to hear someone’s perceived problems over and over. That can reduce our focus and energy. And this can reduce our work performance because we are not operating at peak energy on the things that get the job done. Not to mention the time that can be spent listening to someone or even trying to help them solve their problems, if we are so inclined. And let’s face it, many of us in healthcare do want to help others solve their problems!

How best to respond?

The first temptation is sometimes to ignore it, and hope it goes away! This is rarely effective. And it’s not leadership. Leadership is helping people and the team to be their best selves and fulfil their potential. So you really have an obligation to step in.

There are many things you can do in these instances and often it involves some specific tailoring.

If you need help with tricky situations like this, one thing we are great at in our Members Community is giving support and advice applicable to each individual situation. Not just courses to provide the knowledge, also forums to ask for assistance in real time! Click here to learn more.


For now, let’s look at 3 things you can do as a manager to get you started resolving issues associated with a negative team member.

These 3 starting points are:

  • Check
  • Coach
  • Connect

1) Check

Firstly check our mindset – are we using a negative mindset or allowing a threat response ourself when we consider this team member? Are we in fact highly critical of them? Try to separate the behaviour from the person.

Also check your team culture. Is the challenge wider than the individual? Are there actions that also need to be taken to improve the wider culture?

And check in with the facts of thensituation. Is there anything that you are aware of that might be leading this person to focus on the negative? Have they always been this way in the team? What are some specific examples of their negativity, and what did you see as the impact?

2) Coach

Coaching in some respects is really curiosity. Being curious when the team member raises something in a negative manner, is a good place to start. Great coaching questions can often over time heighten someone’s self awareness about their negativity, or can neutralize the negativity. For example, in a team meeting someone says “This change is stupid, it will never work!” So we ask a question…”I can hear you have some concerns. What are the main challenges you see with what’s proposed?” and “How do you think we could address these challenges?”

Coaching or curiosity is marvellous if used consistently, with a positive intent and with great questions.

3) Connect

Often when we have a team member who tends toward the negative, we can actually neglect to spend time with them – either consciously or non-consciously. A manager’s job is to connect with team members. You might find hidden strengths, an unknown reason for the negativity (even better if easily addressed) or a way to move forward positively.

Without being intrusive, try to find out what’s important to them. That might not even require you asking. Do they constantly talk about how change will impact patients? Then patient care may be important. Do they express concerns about process or systems? Then process and systems or ‘rules’ might be important for them. If you can identify what’s important, then you can lower their threat state by addressing the concern, asking them how to resolve a specific issue or making sure you communicate clearly on these matters.

Check. Coach. Connect. These are 3 straightforward actions or approaches that will definitely help you address a situation with a team member with negativity leanings.


If you would like to know more about how to coach, set expectations, give feedback or impact team culture, then we are here to help! Our Members Community has training and resources on these topics. Better yet, we have discussion forums where you can ask specific questions and share ideas. I’m in the forums most days answering questions as well. We are here specifically to help healthcare leaders tackle their team challenges. Click here to learn more about Membership.





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