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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

Dealing With Negativity

Published May 12, 2009 3:52 PM by Glen McDaniel
We all know someone at work who walks around with a black cloud over his head. This person is usually a naysayer who always sees the glass as half empty and answers every suggestion with "Yes, but..."  Interestingly a negative person rarely takes suggestions about improving the situation they complain about. There is almost a perverse satisfaction in maintaining the status quo.

Whining is very unattractive! But it is more than just annoying; it's obstructive, kills morale and lowers productivity and team spirit. What can you do other than suffer silently?

There are a few simple strategies you can utilize whether you are a boss or a colleague.

First, look in the mirror.  Is your own conduct encouraging negativity? You can feed negativity by doing your own complaining, being hyper critical or by not addressing legitimate concerns as they are expressed. It doesn't hurt to ask someone else "Do I complain too much?  Am I more negative than positive?" Just be prepared for the answer and use it constructively.

Second, are you enabling the behavior? Generally this is done by lending a listening ear or not calling someone out on their negativity. Employees who gossip or get sucked into destructive discussions (even if they don't initiate the discussion) are enablers.

Third, when confronting the complainer use very specific examples. One of the most common devices used by complainers is to use a broad brush to paint everything from the work environment to the boss to the organization to their peers. Often there is little detail; just a broad set of dis-satisfiers.  Sometimes they even malign others' character or integrity without discussing specific actions.

Since negative people thrive in generalities, it is important when confronting those who complain, or otherwise disrupt the workplace, to use specific examples that they cannot deny.  Say something like "Janice, when you discuss other people's behavior with me over lunch, it makes me very uncomfortable and I feel stressed and uncomfortable. I'd rather not be drawn into such a discussion starting today."

There are various ways of stating the behavior and your decision not to be a collaborator. You can be more direct or not based on the individual and the level of negativity. Most likely they will initially try to deny the effect of their action, but they cannot deny the action itself. If you persist and give concrete examples, in time they will have to concede that every behavior (including their own negative words and actions) has an effect on those around them.

If you are a boss when you discuss specific negative behavior with an employee, then at the same time it is very important to also ask for their commitment and buy in. So you might say "Bob, I have noticed that at the last staff meeting you cut Mary off repeatedly when she tried to give her opinion. You rolled your eyes and sighed when Martha gave her report a few minutes ago as well. I really would like everyone to be treated with respect including allowing them to speak without interruption. Can I count on you to allow others to speak without interrupting or making sounds like sighing?"

Do not discuss his motivation, just his actual behavior and its effect on others. When he says "yes", sign the deal by saying "Thanks, and I will help you by reminding you, if you forget to honor that commitment. Of course, I'll do that for everyone else as well."

The bottom  line about dealing with negativity in any form is that you 1. call it out and 2. refuse to be an actor in the drama



I received the following email from a reader who did not want to post directly to the blog-even anonymously.

I think it is a very relevant and insightul opinion so I will add it here with her permission.

"If a manager hears about someone talking down the lab, management or coworkers he must act immediately.  Make it clear to the employee you are there to make their work experience the best it can be and their responsibility is to come to you first before going to another employee, as you are the one with the authority to affect change.

"If they dont want to do that then you must discipline them in the same way you discipline someone for being late or messing up a test.  They are doing as much damage as someone who breaks a policy or rule."

Glen McDaniel May 17, 2009 1:47 PM


You are so right that complainers and negative people concentrate on a problem (real or perceived) withut offering up any real solutions.

Equally significant, most of their complaints are directed at those who have no authority to effect change . In the past, as a leader, I have confronted the complainer and thanked them for their concern while immediatley tasking them with coming up with a solution to the problem.  I give them a very short time frame (like 24 hours) to think about it, then meet with me and explain in specific terms details of what THEY will do to move towards a solution.

I dont accept "they" answers, only "I". If the employee  complains about generalities - "everyone does this..."; "everything is bad", "it never works" etc I make them provide   concrete examples of who, what, when and where. before we move on.  I sometimes ask them to suggest alternative behaviors , including how he/she might have reacted differently for a better outcome.

I offer to help such as facilitate meetings,  give administrative support and so on; but I try not to make them wimp out by passing the buck to others.  I then give them a deadline and hold them accountable for meeting that deadline.

But you are right: complainers are consummate "con artists" and can drag everyone including managers into their psycho-drama unless there is a concerted effort to hold a mirror up to them and hold them accountable.

I wish I could say my tactic has been 100% successful; but it has not.

Glen McDaniel May 16, 2009 1:36 PM
Atlanta GA


Good topic.  You've nailed it, I think, with the idea that negativity is enabled.

Management sets the tone.  For me, the key isn't that negativity is general, it's that complaining is not "action."  Anyone can just complain, usually with very little effort.  (Indeed, the complainer often demands that everyone else needs to make an effort.)  It's a lazy mind's response to a problem.  I try to encourage people to talk about a problem in constructive terms i.e. fix it, don't fuss about it.

Once staff members see that real problems are addressed and everyone has a say, they won't listen to peer complaints.

Easier said than done -- complainers can be extremely good at exploiting others.

Scott Warner May 13, 2009 7:32 AM

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