A blog about reputation, marketing and employee morale.

Negativity is contagious

Posted by Janet Smith on March 11, 2009

Can’t remember where I once read this excellent quote about negativity in the workplace, but it stuck with me: Take a cheerful, positive, hardworking employee and put them in a negative work environment, and the work environment will win every time.

It’s so true. One negative person can bring the workplace down for everyone. You’re rare (and extremely fortunate) if you haven’t worked with someone who complains about everything, criticizes everyone, and in general, sees the bad side of everything. To toxic individuals, the glass isn’t half-empty. It’s empty. Let me be clear—I’m not saying we can’t have a bad day now and then, because that happens to everyone. I’m referring to the people who are unhappy, day in and day out. They’re miserable and determined to drag down everyone around them…because misery loves company, right?

As my opening quote suggests, chronic negativity spreads like a virus among co-workers and infects everyone, to some extent or another. It drains other employees of energy, loyalty, and good feelings about work. When allowed to prevail, negativity affects customer service, creativity, accuracy, and productivity. Negativity hurts an organization’s reputation and it hurts the bottom line.

As the boss, it’s your job to not allow gloomy, cynical, pessimistic employees to drain the life out of everyone else. You must deal with their downer behavior as you would any other performance issue that needs to be corrected, and here’s how that conversation should go, step-by-step:

  1. Thank the employee for their contributions.
  2. Explain the problem behavior.
  3. Ask if they are aware of this behavior, or that it is a problem.
  4. Provide concrete examples of the negative behavior that must change.
  5. Give an explanation of how their behavior affects others and why this is not acceptable.
  6. Provide concrete examples of the desired behavior. 
  7. Review a prepared, written performance improvement plan with date-specific checkpoints.
  8. Explain that if the behavior doesn’t change, the next steps will be probation, then termination.
  9. Reiterate the abilities they have that are valuable to the company.
  10. Provide encouragement and state your belief that they have what it takes to make the changes you have outlined.

You can expect the person in question to have a negative response, of course, arguing that they’re not a goody-goody, not a Pollyanna, and not one of those people that smiles all the time. They may tell you all the reasons they have for being as unhappy as they are and gosh darn it, if you had been through all that they’ve been through, you’d be unpleasant, too. And perhaps they’re right. So it is extremely important that you honor these feelings and emphasize that you are not requesting that they change how they feel. Rather, you are requiring a change in behavior as a condition of their continued employment. And under some circumstances, you might suggest the employee seek counseling through your EAP, or other resources for seeking appropriate help.

It’s not easy to change behavior, as we all know. But it’s amazing what employees can do when their jobs are at stake. So you must deal with this as a serious personnel issue-because it is.

Finally, change will happen more easily and quickly when you notice every tiny improvement and let the employee know that you noticed.  Your recognition and pats on the back are a big part of the change process.

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  1. Marie Adams

    Great post! I agree that negativity is contagious, contagious like the plague. Just one negative employee can have an incredible impact on any workplace.

    Squashing negativity whenever possible is the best way to keep your workforce productive, especially during tough economic times. You offer some great step-by-step advice on how to carry out a difficult conversation, thanks!

  2. NewEnglandDeb (Deb Walker)

    This couldn’t have come at a better time for me! There is one woman on my staff who is the epitomy of the character you talk about. I was planning to address the issue tomorrow and I’m tailoring your how-to approach to the educational setting. I despise having to talk to someone about attitude b/c they should know better. spoke to all of my assistants last week about keeping the classroom a positive environment b/c for many of the kids school is a safe haven. Looks like it’s time for a 1:1. Thanks again for your post.