HR Management & Compliance

Workplace Negativity: Ways to Beat It

A dose of positive leadership, honesty, and recognition can cure workplace negativity and turn it into “Yes, we can!”

As Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, he went through hundreds of designs that didn’t work. At one point a reporter asked him, “Mr. Edison, aren’t you tired of failing?” “Failing?” Edison roared back. “Why I’ve succeeded! I’ve discovered hundreds of ways to not make a light bulb!”

What if Edison had replied, “Nah, you’re right. This will never work.” We then would have an example of negativity in the workplace. We also would all be sitting in the dark.

Negativity is one of the most destructive forces that can be unleashed on an organization. Allowed to germinate and spread, it oozes into every crevice, eating away at morale, teamwork, and initiative and, in the end, often creating the failure it predicted. And it’s no small problem. HR publisher B21 conducted a poll of the effect of negativity on 150 employers. Nearly half called it a “significant problem.” And 1 in 20 called it “downright poisonous.”

The Causes of Negativity

Why does workplace negativity develop? A study by international consultant Towers Perrin and behavioral researchers Gang & Gang, reported by the HR columnist Susan M. Heathfield, found these five reasons:

1) Excessive workload
2) Concerns about management ability

3) Worry about job and retirement security
4) Lack of challenge or outright boredom on the job
5) Perceived lack of recognition, both in pay and other forms.

Some of these are immediately addressable; others require long-term solutions beyond the reach of the typical HR department. However, Heathfield and others have suggested ways to defuse negativity on a day-to-day basis: Here’s a summary of those suggestions:

–Practice Positive Management: How you look at things will dictate how your staff sees them. While being realistic, point out the positive in all situations. And save any critical comments for a separate occasion.

–Don’t Ignore Negativity. It will become stronger unless you acknowledge it exists and ask for ways to make things better. Be prepared to respond honestly to any suggestions you receive. While you may not win over the chronic complainers, others will appreciate your willingness to listen and provide answers.

–Offer recognition, and lots of it! Focus on the small successes as well as the large, and keep the praise and any critiques well separated. Don’t expect to change attitudes overnight. Positive perceptions are built over time.

–Counsel the complainers about the effect they’re having. Often workers with a negative attitude don’t realize how much their behavior influences others. Once they find out, they moderate their attitudes.

Finally, realize that you can’t please everyone. There are some people whose negativity derives from reasons far beyond the workplace. No matter what you do, you won’t be able to convert them. “Negativity mongers need a new job, a new company, a new career, a new outlook or counseling,” says Heathfield. “They don’t need you.”


3 thoughts on “Workplace Negativity: Ways to Beat It”

  1. During our recent annual review period, many of these same negativity causes came to light. This article will provide us with resources to start changing the negativity. Thanks.

  2. Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is; treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.

  3. Editor’s note: The following comment on this story is being posted anonymously at request of the writer:

    I previously worked for a company where this problem spread like wild fire. It all began with the hiring of one person in a management position that just simply could not be accepted by employees of the company. The new employee was not a team player and did not have nor ever earn the respect of any employee. (except that of the owner unfortunately)

    The company has lost several key employees over the last few years since this person came on board, but the owner still refuses to accept or take action against the root of the problem. The owner’s continual praise of the problem employee to other employees seems to be her attempt to encourage the respect and acceptance from the other employees; however, it only adds fuel to the fire.

    I still have friends at this place of business and care deeply for each and every employee their, including the owners. I have had a few of the employees ask me repeatedly to hire them at my current employment. I would love to have them here, but refuse to do that to my previous employer. Is there any suggestion that you might give me to forward on to them for help?



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