4 Simple Steps to Solve Workplace Negativity

by | May 26, 2020 | approachable leadership | 0 comments

How do you deal with workplace negativity?

“Why is he always so negative about everything? He’s got such a terrible attitude!”

Do you ever deal with a coworker who’s a regular source of workplace negativity? Or someone with a bad attitude?

At some point every leader deals with workplace negativity. Sometimes it’s a passing thing. A blow-up over an unexpected change at work. Sometimes a personal situation bleeds into the workplace and leads to negativity. And sometimes you have a teammate who sees the glass half-empty.

Workplace negativity can quickly drag a team down. But it doesn’t have to. If you lead a teammate who sometimes (or even regularly) exhibits a bad attitude, there are some practical ways you can turn things around.

Run to the Smoke

Step one is hard. Run to the smoke, before workplace negativity creates a larger fire.

Humans avoid conflict. “Fight or flight” instincts trigger when a negative person makes a snide comment or shoots down an idea. Some go into “fight” mode, which escalates the conflict. Many of us go into “flight” mode, ignoring the comment. Others save our comments for the “meeting after the meeting,” where we complain about the complainer. None of these approaches are productive.

It is important to engage these negative comments directly. Channel your inner Jerry Brown.

Jerry Brown had a strange habit for a politician. Anytime Brown saw protesters he would walk up to them. Then he asked a simple question, “What’s on your mind?” Brown would politely listen to the protesters explain their grievances.

Once Governor Brown believed he understood the complaint, he didn’t argue. He didn’t try to persuade the protesters to his side. Instead, he explained his understanding of their issue back to them – often more persuasively than they did. He proved he fully understood their point of view. Then he’d head to his event.

Make the Hero Assumption

The Governor’s approach is very similar to what we teach leaders in our Workshops. One important behavior we teach – that Brown clearly adopts – is the Hero Assumption.

It is easy for leaders to make negative assumptions about employee behavior – what we call the Villain Assumption. A leader making the Villain Assumption might think, “Everyone’s struggling right now, why can’t they just get on board? They’re always so selfish.”

A leader making the Hero Assumption instead believes that negative behavior comes from a good place. This person really cares and wants things to be great. Governor Brown didn’t assume protesters had negative intent. Instead he acknowledged the legitimacy of their complaints. It is important for leaders to fight the urge to assume negative intent, and it’s especially critical during today’s trying times. If you make the hero assumption – knowing that your teammate wants to be great – then your approach and the questions you ask will be different.

Stop, Listen, Confirm

Hopefully your negative teammate isn’t outside your office carrying a picket sign or interrupting your next meeting yelling slogans with a bullhorn. But Jerry Brown’s approach is a great way to deal with negativity.

Brown shows empathy with his negative constituents. He doesn’t expect them to change their mind or agree with him. But he does want them to feel like he took time to understand. That he carefully considered what they had to say and perhaps he might change his mind.

We teach the Stop, Listen, Confirm model for these situations.

Seek Understanding Using the SLC Technique

If your teammate has a complaint or something negative to say, ask what’s bothering them and then truly listen to understand. This can be difficult for leaders who often go into problem-solving mode before their teammate has finished their story. That creates even more negativity.

Instead use the Stop-Listen-Confirm (SLC) technique. While your teammate tells their story, commit to being fully present. Stop everything else and give your full attention. Actively listen to the whole story.

Then, before you say anything else, complete this phrase: “You feel [emotional state] because of [summary of situation]. Do I have that right?” If you discipline yourself to do this, it will transform your conversations with negative teammates.

Ask Better Questions

Now that you’re making the hero assumption you won’t blame your teammate for their bad attitude. Instead you’ll seek to understand what’s going on that’s causing the negativity. You’ll recall times they were positive and engaged. They’ll be much more likely to tell you what’s going on.

Once you’ve confirmed understanding you can then ask questions to help clarify what might change their attitude. Here are three simple questions to get you started:

  • Do you have what you need?
  • What would make work better?
  • What’s next?

These simple questions lead to much more positive conversations, especially when they come from a sincere place of caring from the leader.

Prepare to Change Your Mind

I first heard the Jerry Brown story a few years ago when Tim Ferris interviewed Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Ferris calls Stewart the “Polymath of Polymaths” – he’s an incredibly interesting guy. Near the end of this interview Brand turns to the subject of the power and courage of changing one’s mind and told the story about Jerry Brown.

It is important for you, as a leader, to be prepared to change your mind. You should especially be willing to change your mind about the attitude of someone creating “workplace negativity.” The vast majority of situations where someone turns negative are resolvable.

The Takeaway

One of our core values is Teamwork. We define that as, “to embrace healthy conflict and then commit wholeheartedly to our path.” Healthy conflict can feel like negativity, but this is wrong-headed. Instead you should embrace healthy conflict. You can do that if you:

  1. Run to the Smoke (don’t avoid a negative teammate to avoid conflict – engage with and try to understand them);
  2. Make the Hero Assumption (make sure you aren’t creating a negative workplace by always assuming the best about your teammates);
  3. Stop, Listen, Confirm (channel your inner Jerry Brown and seek to truly understand negative behavior – if you can’t explain how your teammate feels you may be part of the problem);
  4. Ask Better Questions with an Open Mind (ask great questions and truly seek to learn and be fully prepared to change your mind).

You got this. And if you have any negative feedback, I’m all ears 🙂


Do you have any teammates who have a negative attitude? How do you handle workplace negativity? Do you embrace healthy conflict or avoid it? Let us know in the comments.

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