Your browser (Internet Explorer 6) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Dealing with negative people


Everyone runs into negative people at times.  You know, the guys who always see the glass half empty.  The people who seem to suck all the energy out of a room when they enter.

The problem is negative people can sometimes be your more intelligent employees.  And, you do in fact need their input.  So how do you keep a workplace positive, and still remain realistic?

First of all, let’s talk about negativism for a moment. According to research, a baby will usually spot a frowning face in a crowd of smiling faces, and will focus on the frowning face.  I’m not sure we ever grow out of that.

In the Old Testament book of Numbers we find the story of Moses sending 12 spies into the promised land. The Israelites had been wandering through a barren land, and now they were getting ready to enter the lush valley of the Jordan.  A land promised to them by God.

The 12 spies returned with glowing tales of the fertility of the land, but they also reported that the inhabitants were big and fierce.  They had fortified cities and frankly, they terrified the spies.

All, that is except two, Joshua and Caleb, who acknowledged the size of the  challenge,  but said with God’s help, they could take it.

The response of the others is instructive.  The more they talked about the downside, the more negative they became.  They began to make irrational statements, even saying at one point that they would be better off dead.

The negative ones  became hostile to Joshua and Caleb, even threatening to stone them.   And finally, they descended into complete rebellion, and attempted to replace Moses and return to Egypt.

So, here’s what we learn:

  • Negativism is contagious
  • Negativism leads to irrational thought
  • Negativism leads to hostility
  • Negativism leads to rebellion

Peter Bregman, writing in the Harvard Business Review gave some advice for dealing with negativity.  Here it is:

  • Don’t counter their negativity with your positivity

That seems counter intuitive, but it appears to the other person as argumentative.  People don’t like to be emotionally contradicted, and trying to convince them NOT to feel something, tends to make them feel it more stubbornly.

  • Don’t counter their negativity with your negativity

Your negativity, if you try this, will only add fuel to the fire.  Avoid doing it.

  • Understand how they feel and validate it. 

This is hard, but you are not agreeing with them, you’re simply showing that you understand how they feel.  Inc Magazine offered some good advice in this area.  “Inquire first, and advocate second.”  In other words, seek to understand why they feel the way they do.

  • Find a place to agree with them. 

You do not have to fake it, and you don’t have to agree with everything they’re saying, but if you can, agree with some of it.  You can express, for instance, that you too have frustrations over the way some things are done.

  • Find out what they’re positive about, and reinforce it.

 You are not trying to convince them to be positive, you’re simply giving attention whatever they are positive about.  Almost no one is negative about everything.  If they are in fact, completely negative, then make sure they see you supporting others who are positive.

This offers them concrete hope, because it’s based on the positive feelings they already have, rather than on feelings you think they should have.

Negativity DOES have to be dealt with, because it costs money.   Gallop says that negative and disengaged employees cost American businesses around $350 billion per year.

Gallop author Curt Coffman calls these actively disengaged negative employees “cave dwellers.”  C.A.V.E. meaning consistently against virtually everything.

Inc Magazine suggests the following:

  • Strive for healthy conflict

Healthy conflict, goes back to the earlier suggestion from HBR, inquire first, and advocate second.  There can be opposing views, but as long as both sides are actively engaged in doing what’s in the organization’s best interest, the results can be positive.

This works in all organizations, including volunteer ones, but I think that profits can be a strong motivator for a business leader reticent to try this.  Negativity costs money; there’s no escaping that fact.  So deal with it.

  • Hire positive people

That sounds almost trite doesn’t it?  But consider this: do you want a positive environment in your company?  Then don’t hire negative people to start with.

This doesn’t mean hiring yes men.  A healthy organization needs men and women that will express themselves.  But, you want people that overall, have a positive outlook on life; people that primarily look for solutions, not problems.

  • Be completely transparent

When people aren’t given the whole story, they tend to make up the rest, and it’s usually more negative than the truth.  This as much as anything can lead to negativity and disengagement.

  • Encourage innovation

This is all about letting go, and allowing people to use their creative talents.  You can counter negativity by giving people the tools to change the things that bother them the most.

  • Allow fun

I am convinced that fun is greatly underrated in most organizations.  Think of ways to make your work environment fun, even crazy at times.

  • Prune bad apples

Unfortunately, there comes a time, when a consistently negative employee has to be cut loose.  These are the grenade throwers, who don’t provide solutions, but simply exacerbate problems.  Give them a chance to change; help them.   But, if that fails let them go.

Your business’ future depends on it.