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HR How-To: Controlling Workplace Negativity

Just about every office has the one curmudgeon that can turn even the most minimal interference in the workday into a big to-do. The worst part? This one negative nelly can very quickly spread their gloom around, resulting in an overall negative work environment and even a drop in employee morale.

But first, let’s take a minute to explore some of the most frequently cited reasons for workplace negativity. According to a number of studies, folks are most likely to be negative in the workplace because they either have too much on their plate or the work that they do have is boring or unchallenging, or because they feel that they aren’t being fairly compensated for what they are able to produce. Negative feelings can also arise if workers doubt the abilities of upper management to steer the so-called corporate ship as it can prompt feelings of job insecurity, which in turn ups the general anxiety levels of staff. 
But alas, you don’t have to let that one bad apple spoil the bunch. Read on for our top six tips for nipping workplace negativity in the bud and creating a happier, more productive environment. 

Acknowledge feelings: 
Nothing makes an angry person more fired up than hearing that the issue is all in their head. Instead, if an employee seems particularly upset, invite them to have a sit down conversation so that you can learn about the issue and how it is impacting their job or even just their happiness at the company. During the meeting, acknowledge their feelings and repeat what they have said to you, in your own words, so that you can be sure you properly understand the issue. If you can fix the problem in that meeting, wonderful! However, if it is an issue that will require significantly more leg work to fix, be upfront about your plan to investigate the issue, let them know what steps need to be completed, and close the loop of communication by giving them a specific date when you will be able to provide an update or a resolution. Steer clear of making any promises that you may not be able to deliver on, and instead convey to your employee that the issue is important to you and you will give the matter your full attention.

Ask for input: 
Employees feel stifled and have a negative outlook when they feel like they’re just along for the ride. If you stop and ask your employees for input on key decisions, policy changes, or even new product lines, they will feel more valued and positive about their role in the company and future with the company. In particular, employees tend to respond well when asked to provide input on issues that directly impact their day-to-day operations, such as changes to hours, location, dress code, salary and benefits, as well as matters that could impact their trajectory at the company, such as changes to their job description or requirements. With that said, be warned: Folks tend to be averse to change, so be prepared to experience some negativity or push back and have some answers in your back pocket to help improve your cause. 

Be fair: 
Want to know the quickest way to breed negativity in the workplace? Be inconsistent either with praise or with discipline! When you fail to give everyone the same treatment, you breed an “us versus them” mentality that can quickly sour even the sweetest of workplaces. Now, in many cases, it may not be feasible to treat everyone the same, such as if you’re dishing out bonuses, but within departments or job functions, accolades and admonishments should be given across the board. To make this rule especially airtight, know your policies as it pertains to acceptable behavior and make sure that these expectations are communicated to employees — both in person and in your employee handbook — and then be sure that you are consistent with how they are enforced, meaning that any deviations from the rules are handled the same, regardless of who causes the mischief.

Communicate change: 
Employees feel left out of the loop — and ultimately disengaged and grumpy — when they feel like the last to know big news about the company. If you’re making a big decision — or even just a decision that could impact their day-to-day workflow — be sure to make staff aware as soon as is possible, preferably even during the planning phase. In announcing the plan, note the background events that incited the need for change, how you plan to implement the change, when it will be effective, and how it might change the status quo, both for the company and the impacted employees. If the change is specific to one unit, or even one employee, be sure that you involve those impacted as much as possible and that you check in regularly with them as the change is implemented to continue to receive feedback and ensure that people feel that their voices are being heard. 
Be clear about careers: 
When people feel stuck in the same spot, they have nothing to do but spin their wheels, which in turn can lead to frustration and negativity. Before you even bring an employee on board, have a clear idea about what you expect their career ladder to look like and what they need to do in order to climb the next rung and make sure you are communicating this same information to your employees. In addition, you should provide opportunities – be it in education, skills enhancement, or relevant training – to help those employees get to the next level, as well as be open and honest in providing feedback so that employees are not caught off guard if they do miss an anticipated objective or goal. In addition, you should make every effort to promote from within, and if you do choose an outside source for a job that an internal candidate was being considered for, be clear with that employee about why you made the choice and what your expectations are for them moving forward. 

Acknowledge a job well done: 
As the surveys suggest, one of the primary drivers of negative behavior in the workplace is the feeling of being unappreciated. Make your employees feel valued by recognizing them for their contribution; both big and small. Simply stating that someone has done a great job can certainly be effective, but you can extend the recognition by calling out a job well done in your company newsletter, by making them employee of the month, or even offering a monetary or other perk to show your appreciation. It does not have to be a grand gift, sometimes just a gift card for a coffee is all it takes! Want some more guidance on good incentives? Check out our previous blog post for how to strike the right note with your crew.

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