The Grinch Who Stole Business

"Glass half empty" people cost you money--here's how to deal with them and prevent negativity from spreading.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the March 2001 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Every business has one: the "glass half empty" person who's always on the lookout for something to go wrong and spends the bulk of the workday promoting gloom and doom and disparaging everything from projects to people.

This person's "it'll never work" attitude is rubbing off, too. You notice that other employees-once shiny, happy, motivated people-are starting to gossip and criticize. When it comes down to it, negativity is like the flu: It's contagious. It's also expensive. Workplace negativity costs companies millions in terms of productivity and profitability.

Eradicating negativity from the workplace is also next to impossible. After all, you can't please all the people all the time. So how do you deal with an employee whose negativity is starting to rub off on other people? While it's easy to chalk the person's behavior up to the generic "bad attitude" and ignore it, that can actually fuel the fire by setting a negative cultural norm, says Gary Topchik, managing partner of employer consulting firm SilverStar Enterprises Inc. and author of a new book called Managing Workplace Negativity (AMACOM).

"Quite often, the organization is causing the negativity and actually gives employees the license to be negative," Topchik says. "Leaders need to confront the negativity and talk about it."

Why the Sad Face?

Like most employers, Tina Hart, co-founder and CEO of Luna, a Columbia, South Carolina-based women's contemporary clothing and lifestyle store, has seen negativity creep into her workplace. It's been especially prevalent over the past four years as her business has expanded to additional locations and 50 employees. Last year she dealt with one female sales-person who was becoming increasingly negative toward customers and co-workers. Hart saw it affecting other employees and took action, meeting with this salesperson regularly over a three-month period to find the source of her negativity. But nothing helped, and Hart eventually let the employee go to improve morale.

Today, Hart, 34, is learning how to nip negativity in the bud. She admits she's put up with negativity to keep positions filled in the past. "That one [negative] person can really hurt you," Hart says. "[Negativity] will start rubbing off on sales and changing the way your employees feel about your business."

When dealing with a negative employee, it comes down to a chicken-and-egg type of question: Is the employee negative by nature, or are there broader issues in the company that are making him or her that way? These broader issues can include on-the-job stress, a work environment where employees feel they can't voice their opinions and concerns, excessive time demands, lack of growth opportunities, poor compensation, and ever-changing policies and procedures. "Employers need to look at things from the employee perspective," says Chandra Louise, founder of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina-based, a Web site that helps employees cope in the workplace.

Often at the heart of a "negaholic" attitude are fear and uncertainty. In fact, Topchik found in his research that the way companies handle change is the biggest single cause of workplace negativity. Even if that new invoicing procedure really is for the better, employees will automatically ask themselves: What am I losing? For employees, change automatically equals the loss of something comfortable, and they will resist it. Topchik relates this to the loss of what he calls the "Three C's": control, confidence and community.

Changing who an employee reports to, increasing a quota, taking away creativity in a project, or something as simple as altering the lunch schedule can set employees off. With any change, employees want to know why it's being made and want to be a part of the decision-making process. When they don't get input and answers, the seeds of negativity are sown.

Make It Constructive

Entrepreneurs should avoid singling out the glass-half-empty type, because being berated and labeled as the problem only reinforces a negative person's worst fears and makes him or her even more defensive, says Bill Crawford, a Houston-based psychologist, speaker and author of From Chaos to Calm: Dealing With Difficult People vs. Having Them Deal With You (Florence Publishing). "One of the keys to dealing with negative people is seeing them as frightened instead of frightening. It can change your whole perspective," Crawford says.

Employers also need to determine whether the negativity can be turned into something constructive. Is the information valuable? After all, that person you see as lagging on every project may actually be the brave soul who's speaking for the other people in the office. In this case, the negative employee has something to say about the job that needs to be said; the information is just not coming out in a constructive way. This is where the employer can make a big impact.

"Coach these employees on how to communicate. Be positive and say 'I'm impressed with your impressions.' Channel this person's disruptive energy so that it might create solutions," Crawford says. Chances are, these people are complaining because they think they have good ideas that haven't been heard. Turning the griper into a solution provider gives this "class disrupter" an avenue to contribute in a valuable way and also plays into the person's self-esteem.

Remember, too, that office critics may not even realize that they're overly critical. "Most negative people don't know that they're negative because no one ever tells them," Topchik says.

Hart says she tries to answer the fol-lowing questions when dealing with a negative employee:

1. Does this person have potential but is in the wrong job?

2. Does he or she require encouragement or desire more (or less) responsibility?

3. Is he or she suffering from personal problems?

Hart has found some of her negative employees just wanted to find their place at Luna and, with encouragement, direction or a promotion, became much more positive about their jobs and turned out to be good performers. "Communication is so important," she says. "We make an effort to sit down and talk about it. After a month or two, the situation almost always improves."

Spreading the Joy

Here are some simple steps for quelling the office critic:

1. Understand change from the employee's perspective. "Involve employees; don't just mandate to them," Topchik says. Listen for the first grumblings of discontent and take action. Former professor and professional speaker Alan R. Zimmerman, Ph.D., uses the phrase "forms vs. forums"-e.g., using a memo vs. a meeting to discuss a company change-to describe the ways CEOs communicate. "All organizations go through change, but few talk about it with employees," he says. Zimmerman, who helps companies deal with negativity, says employees can put up with change as long as they can talk openly about it.

2. Find the fear, then focus on solutions. A negative person may be afraid of something. Is that something being fired? Failing on a project? Not being listened to? Teach negative employees to focus on offering solutions, not just criticism. Add formal evaluation procedures, and, if negativity seems rampant, hire a third party to conduct an anonymous survey to assess the problem.

3. Do some coaching. Work with the negative person on improving his or her attitude, and make sure to document everything. If there's no improvement after three to six months, maybe it's time, as Topchik says, to give the gift of unemployment. "Employers can work too long and hard with some negative people, when it's better just to cut their losses," he says.

After you let a negative person go, talk with employees about the future of their workplace. It can be the perfect opportunity to take the pulse of your company culture.


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