You feel like something has shifted on your team, and now you’re noticing a lot of negativity in the workplace.

Your weekly team meetings are filled with groans, eye rolls, and complaints. Grievances and finger-pointing have become the norm. Bad attitudes are running rampant and you’re not sure what you can do to get your team back on track.

There are a lot of conversations about the importance of employee engagement and morale, however, negativity in the workplace is still surprisingly common. According to Harvard Business Review, 98% of people have experienced rudeness or incivility at work at some point in their careers. 

You don’t expect your team to cartwheel to their desks in the morning, but you also don’t want to let a doom and gloom attitude take over. Here’s how you can identify negativity in the workplace — and then nip it in the bud. 

How does negativity in the workplace affect business?

You’ve likely seen how negativity can spread like wildfire. If it’s not addressed, it can lead to numerous dire effects for your team and organization, including:

  • Decreased productivity: A study from Michigan State University concluded that negative-minded workers can become mentally fatigued  and experience a decline in productivity as a result.
  • Reduced employee engagement: Negativity leads to emotional exhaustion. One study found that emotional exhaustion directly correlates to lower job engagement levels.
  • Increased employee turnover: When employees aren’t happy, they hit the road. One study conducted by Peakon found that if employees could change one thing about their organization, it would be the office environment they work in. A separate study found that employees who rate their office work culture poorly are 24% more likely to leave.

Combine all of those consequences and it means big, bad things for a company’s bottom line. Some estimates state that U.S. companies lose as much as $3 billion per year due to the effects of negativity in the workplace. 

How do you diagnose negativity in the workplace?

More often than not, diagnosing negativity on your team isn’t black and white. It’s not always tangible, and you might feel it more than you see it.

With that said, there are a few telltale signs to look out for. Here are some red flags which indicate that negativity has crept into your team dynamic: 

  • Frequent complaints and criticisms
  • Decreased productivity and output
  • Disengagement and refusal to participate
  • Consistent excuses and shifting of blame
  • Reduced energy and enthusiasm  
  • Increased gossip, sniping, and toxicity 

Make sure you take note of whether these symptoms are happening across your entire team, or with a select few team members. That will help you figure out the best way to address the problem. 

How to deal with negative employees

You’ve kept your eyes peeled for the above indicators, and you noticed that there’s one employee — or maybe even a few employees — who seem to be at the root of the bad attitude on your team. 

Now what? It’s time to figure out how to overcome negativity. Here are a few tips to deal with those employees directly.

  1. Resist the urge to complain: Negativity can be a vicious cycle, and you don’t want to feed into it. Shut down the temptation to complain about that negative employee behind their back. That’s counterproductive — not to mention a bad example. 
  2. Address the negativity directly: You’re better off addressing this issue with the employee directly. Don’t write it off as something that will improve in time or as an inherent aspect of their personality. Set a private meeting where you can sit down with that employee and mention you’ve noticed a change in their attitude. 
  3. Come prepared with specific examples: We’re not always great at recognizing how we’re perceived by others, which might mean your employee will be blindsided by the fact that they’re viewed as negative on your team. If you’re equipped with specific examples of times you saw their negative attitude creep in, you can better alert them to their behavior. 
  4. Use personal observations: Examples are helpful, provided they’re presented appropriately. Avoid language like, “everybody has noticed…” This can make your employee feel ganged up on. Stick with using your own perspective by saying, “I’ve noticed…”

Highlight consequences: Once you’ve brought an employee’s negative attitude to their attention, their next thought might be, “So what?” Emphasize the impact this behavior is having on your entire team and organization. That will help your employee recognize that their behavior has real consequences — not just for them, but for everybody they work with. 

How to motivate negative employees

Once you’ve had this conversation to alert an employee to their negativity and perception in the office, you can’t just leave it at that. 

If you don’t follow that up by offering support to help them change their ways and become a more positive, productive member of your team, you’ll only breed more resentment and negativity. 

But, how do you flip the script and nudge negative employees in the right direction? Try a few of these strategies to increase their motivation

  • Ask for their feedback: Rather than pointing the finger, seek to understand if there’s a root reason why your employee is falling into a negativity trap. Are they unhappy in their position? Do they feel overwhelmed with work and their to-dos? Involve them in the conversation and ask for their opinions on their work environment and attitude. You might uncover something you weren’t expecting. 
  • Host frequent check-ins: Real change requires consistency. Schedule a monthly sit-down with that employee where you can chat about their progress and how they’re feeling about their work. These regularly-scheduled conversations will help them maintain awareness of how they’re behaving in the office. 
  • Provide positive reinforcement: It’s a sad but true fact that our brains process negative information more thoroughly than positive information. Make sure you balance out your constructive criticism with some praise and recognition. When you see that employee take a step in the right direction, don’t let it slip by unnoticed. 

Changing the energy in your workplace 

What if you’ve noticed that negativity has spread beyond one employee and is impacting your entire team? 

Many of the above strategies — such as addressing the issue directly, providing specific examples, and collecting insights and feedback — can be expanded beyond a single employee and applied to your entire department. 

However, there are a few others that will be helpful for transitioning toward more positive overall energy at work:

  • Start a fun tradition: This is not only something that your team can enjoy doing together, but also a way to call out negativity when it happens. For example, a team-wide activity as lighthearted and simple as a complaint jar (where employees need to drop a quarter whenever somebody complains) will help employees become more mindful of their everyday interactions. 
  • Lead by example: If you’re continuously complaining, what do you think your employees will do? The best way to lead is by example. So, make sure you maintain a positive attitude yourself, even when things are challenging. Your employees will notice. 
  • Be patient: Your team’s attitude and culture won’t change overnight. Stick with it, provide positive feedback and reinforcement, and celebrate the seemingly small wins. Lasting changes take time. 

Notice negativity in the workplace? It’s time to address it

When you notice that the overall vibe of your team is in a nosedive, one of the worst things you can do is assume it’s a phase that will improve on its own.

As the leader, it’s your job to step in, right the ship, and address that negativity head on.

Sound challenging? Well, we won’t sugarcoat it: It can be. Fortunately, this guide will help you spot the signs that negativity is creeping in and then tackle it head-on — long before it overwhelms your team. 

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