Learning & Development, Startup HR

Ripple Effect of Unhappy Coworkers

It seems like every office has at least one employee who’s constantly complaining about one thing or another or just generally has a bad attitude. Sometimes their complaints are legitimate; sometimes they just like to complain. Often coworkers and managers will just roll their eyes and do what they can—or are willing to do—to be receptive of that unhappy coworker’s grumbles.

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It Pays to Pay Attention to Complaints

The problem is that these grumbles aren’t vacuum-sealed into that one employee. Merited or not, they’re likely to spread to the rest of the team and put a dent in morale, and that can cause significant and lasting problems for any organization.

“There’s evidence to suggest that certain attitudes and behaviors can spread from one person to a group of people quite easily, especially in work contexts: for example, employees are more likely to engage in immoral acts, like lying or stealing, if they work alongside others who commit such acts,” writes Bryan Lufkin in an article for BBC Worklife. “But subtler forms of workplace negativity—like a colleague who just doesn’t like their job and is vocal about it—can also send ripple effects through teams.”

Bad Apple or Canary in the Coal Mine?

For some readers, this domino effect be a reminder of the old saying: “one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.” And indeed, many managers and companies take this viewpoint. But that implicitly assumes that the unhappy employee is a “bad apple.” Sometimes the person who seems like the lone unhappy employee is simply the first to start vocalizing a collective undertone of discontent—like the “canary in the coal mine.”

The impetus for managers is two-fold. Firstly, it’s important to not be reflexively dismissive of complaints from “that employee.” Despite their general demeanor, they may have genuine grievances. Secondly, it’s also important to remember that attitude is a legitimate consideration when evaluating overall performance. An employee that is being overly negative and encouraging a toxic sentiment needs to be addressed. Often, that simply means a conversation with the manager to set expectations; but for some it can actually mean the employee doesn’t belong on the team.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Guest Contributor at HR Daily Advisor.