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5 Questions to Ask Before Dealing With a Negative Team Member

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The business world can be tough. We've all read insanely discouraging statistics about the failure rate of startup operations. Working with people you enjoy spending your days with is not enough to provide vaccination from the challenges of "making it." Add into the mix a bad apple or two, and the task becomes even more difficult.


Related: Five Problem Employees and What You Can Do About Them

If I were running a study, I would say each negative coworker on a team drives down overall productivity by 1,000 percent. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it can certainly feel that way. No company's hiring practices are bullet-proof. You can have a candidate go through countless rounds of interviews, check references, utilize personality profiles, etc., but from time to time, a bad attitude can sneak through undetected.

Here are five things to consider in dealing with a negative team member.

1. Is it circumstantial or their nature?

Everyone is going to have a bad day once in a while. If an employee is going through a difficult time at home or other hardship, your best move is to be supportive. But if there's a pattern demonstrating a disproportionate number of bad days, don't wait for a crisis to hit. It's already time for a serious conversation.

Share with them your observations and cite specific incidents -- negative comments, emails or body language -- and work with them on more productive ways to channel their frustration. 

2. Has there been any miscommunication?

Are negative employees a pattern rather than an exception? If so, then perhaps the issue is larger than just one individual. A culture or pattern of negativity may be driving your organization.

Remember, attitudes -- like so many things -- are contagious. A negative attitude can spread and will continue to do so unless you stop it. It's time to talk to all your leaders and key teammates, and make sure that they consistently are setting the right example. If it's an organizational problem, your leaders may inadvertently be sending the wrong message. 

Related: Having Problems With a Key Employee? Remember: No One Is Irreplaceable.

3. What is the right tone to take with a negative employee?

Always keep two important aspects of your approach at top-of-mind. You want to be non-confrontational yet direct. When put in a stressful situation, such as a conversation addressing their negative attitude, many people have the tendency to become defensive. Given this, you'll greatly enhance your ability to reach them if you keep the tone civil. At the same time, you don't want to beat around the bush. Clearly articulate your concerns so there’s no ambiguity.

4. How do I start the conversation?

When someone is consistently negative, you probably have an unhappy employee. The key issue then becomes -- why? Before addressing the team member's attitude, assess their level of job-satisfaction. Simple open-ended questions will suffice: How do you feel about working here? Or, have your expectations been met? If not, how so? Under what circumstances do you see yourself happy here?

Prior to attempting to work on the employee's attitude, you have to know if they want to be at your company. If not, then no amount of coaching will help the situation.

5. When is it time to part ways?

Unfortunately, not every team member will be a good fit. After you have had the tough conversation and provided them a reasonable amount of time to change their ways, you must let them go if there's no progress.

Ultimately, this is for everyone's benefit. The rest of the team will know exactly why you made the move, and they will be grateful. After all, the person you have released needed a wake-up call. Because of their negativity, they hit a wall with your company -- so a fresh start may do them good. As long as you had the right conversation, were direct and gave them an opportunity to correct their behavior, you can make the move with a clear conscience. 

To create a winning organization, the entire company has to have both the right skills and attitude. These decisions are probably not what drew you to start your own business, but how you make and implement them can determine your success.

Related: The Right Way to Fire Someone

Marty Fukuda

Written By

Chicago native Marty Fukuda is the chief operating officer of N2 Publishing, overseeing operations at its corporate headquarters in Wilmington, N.C. He first joined the company as an area director in 2008 after working in the direct sales and print industries.