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Managing Workplace Negativity Before It Spreads


Every organization faces negativity in the workplace at some point. Left unchecked, negativity can spread quickly throughout an entire company culture and seriously damage employee engagement, productivity, and company success. As leaders, it is imperative that we understand the underlying causes and impacts of negativity, and proactively implement strategies to manage it before it becomes systemic.


Today we will explore research on the effects of negativity in organizations and offer practical, evidence-based suggestions leaders can take to prevent the spread of negativity and promote a more positive work culture.


Research on the Impact of Negativity in Organizations


Negativity Lowers Productivity and Performance


Substantial research has found that negativity in the workplace negatively impacts both individual and team performance. In a study of over 200 employees, researchers found that individual negativity was associated with lower job performance ratings from supervisors (Scott et al., 2019). Negativity can also spread between coworkers and damage team performance. Research by Bartel and Saavedra (2000) analyzed work teams at a large equipment manufacturer and found that overall team negativity was correlated with lower productivity. As negativity increases, attentional resources are diverted towards negative thoughts and away from tasks, lowering focus and output.


Negativity Increases Stress and Decreases Well-Being


Exposure to workplace negativity takes both a physical and psychological toll on employees. A study by Beal et al. (2005) found that greater exposure to coworker negativity was linked to higher levels of stress, fatigue, and feelings of being overloaded. A survey of over 1,000 employees also found that working in a negative environment was one of the strongest predictors of job burnout (Guasp, 2020). Sustained exposure to negativity triggers the body's stress response, leading to increased cortisol levels, fatigue, and other health issues over time if not managed properly.


Negativity Discourages Collaboration and Innovation


Positivity is key for fostering collaboration, creativity, and innovation in organizations (Amabile et al., 2004). When negativity is present, it discourages open sharing of ideas and constructive debate. Employees become less willing to take risks and suggest new approaches when the environment feels critical rather than supportive. Negativity can also damage trust between coworkers and hinder collaboration across team and departmental boundaries (Guasp, 2020). This stifles opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and discourages innovation across an organization.


Negative Cultures Attract and Retain Less Talent


According to a survey conducted by CareerBuilder (2016), 70% of employees would consider leaving their current job if their workplace became more negative. Research has also found that negative company cultures are 23 times more likely to lose top talent within the first year compared to a positive company (Gallup, 2017). Even worse, those negative cultures build a reputation that attracts less top talent to the organization in the first place. Savvy employees want to work in supportive, growth-oriented environments and will avoid jobs perceived as bureaucratic, critical, or draining to their well-being.


Managing Negativity with a Positive Leader Mindset


Based on this foundation of research, leaders must acknowledge the serious threats of negativity spreading in their organizations and proactively cultivate a more positive culture. While positive changes take ongoing effort, the result of improved employee engagement, health, innovation and retention far outweigh the costs. With the right mindset and techniques, leaders can directly counter negativity and turn the tide towards greater positivity in their teams and companies.


Adopt a Growth Mindset as a Leader


Research by Carol Dweck (2006) identified fixed and growth mindsets as two distinct approaches individuals can take. Those with a fixed mindset see skills and talents as innate traits that cannot change. In contrast, a growth mindset sees ability as something that can be developed through effort, learning and persistence in the face of challenges. As leaders, adopting a growth mindset sets the right tone that mistakes and negativity don't define people, and that every person has room for improvement through dedication and support. This mindset encourages open feedback, risk-taking and positivity in teams.


Lead with Empathy, Compassion and Understanding


Effective leaders deal with negativity not by attacking the negative person, but by showing care, empathy and a willingness to understand different viewpoints (Goleman et al., 2004). When an employee raises concerns in a negative way, focus on empathetically hearing them out first before offering solutions. Ask open-ended questions to get a full sense of what's really bothering them and making them stressed, frustrated or disengaged. With empathy and compassion, employees will be more receptive to positive change ideas proposed by leaders later on.


Share Positivity and Express Gratitude


Leaders must model the positive culture they want to see with both words and actions. Beyond just absence of negativity, focus energy on frequently showing appreciation for employees' efforts through both formal acknowledgments and informal expressions of thanks on a regular basis (Guasp, 2020). Leaders should also share stories of success, celebrations and words of encouragement whenever possible to help override any small negativities that arise and keep the overall workplace mood upbeat.


Techniques for Directly Managing Negativity


While leader mindset lays the groundwork, additional specific techniques are needed to directly mitigate negativity in teams when it arises. Here are research-backed strategies leaders can deploy:


  • Have Caring Conversations About Negativity: When a negative pattern emerges, schedule private caring conversations with the employee(s) involved (Scott et al., 2010). Express concern for their well-being first before discussing the negativity issue. Allow them space to vent any frustrations in order to diffuse emotions, then jointly brainstorm constructive solutions. Frame it as a partnership to improve the situation rather than a disciplinary meeting. Most negativity comes from real underlying concerns that can be resolved through open communication.

  • Use Data to Provide Neutral Feedback: If negativity persists, gather objective data such as performance metrics, feedback from others, or 360 reviews to factually demonstrate areas of concern (Goleman et al., 2004). Neutral facts shown through caring are less threatening than accusations and more conducive to positive change. Follow up data with brainstorming further solutions and offering coaching/training tailored to employee needs.

  • Mediate Conflict and Diffuse Tensions: When negativity arises from conflicts between employees, mediate through structured discussion where each person gets equal air time to share perspectives without interruption (Scott et al., 2010). Reframe issues as shared problems to solve rather than personal attacks. Address tensions, agree on mutual understandings and changes, then follow up to ensure commitments are kept. Mediation de-escalates disputes that often fuel persistent negativity.

  • Use Investigation and Accountability Appropriately: If negativity stems from behaviors like bullying, harassment, poor performance despite coaching or damaging company culture, human resources investigations may be necessary along with increased accountability through formal warnings or other disciplinary responses (Guasp, 2020). However, discipline should always be a last resort - most negativity situations are better solved through open communication, empathy and structured problem-solving first before more serious measures.

  • Replace Negativity with Positive Affirmations: When negative behaviors, attitudes or thinking persist despite other strategies, directly counter with positive reinforcement (Staw et al., 1981). For example, if an employee frequently complains about inadequate resources, acknowledge that concern but then follow up with specific instances where they succeeded despite obstacles, what they are most skilled at contributing, and areas for positive growth. Affirmations of strengths can reframe negativity into a more solution-focused mindset.

  • Celebrating Small Wins and Recognizing Improvement: Sustain new positive patterns by publicly celebrating any small improvements, wins or instances where employees caught themselves resisting old negative thought patterns (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Conscious efforts to change negativity deserve positive acknowledgment. If structured changes are made like more resources or improvements implemented, formally thank and recognize the hard work to overcome past challenges. Celebration fuels continued progress and shifts mindsets to see goals as achievable through effort over time.


Managing Negativity in Specific Industries


While universal research has been discussed so far, effective leaders tailor strategies to their unique industry challenges as well. Here are some considerations:


  • Healthcare: With heavy workloads and intense emotional demands, compassion fatigue is common (Guasp, 2020). Encourage self-care, flexible scheduling, limit overtime when burnout emerges. Provide counseling resources, solicit feedback frequently, give autonomy over tasks. Celebrate teams who support each other.

  • Technology: Fast-paced environment breeds stress; unrealistic deadlines fuel negativity. Clearly define priorities, be flexible on timelines. Promote work-life balance, encourage breaks, celebrate successes weekly.

  • Education: Low pay, lack of resources, behavior issues wear down morale. Make time daily for gratitude, highlight small wins. Mediate conflicts constructively. Advocate publicly for changes needed.

  • Customer Service: Dealing with difficult customers daily breeds cynicism. Provide active listening training. Celebrate acts of patience, kindness toward others. Solicit customer praise to share.


Conclusion


Leaders play an active role in shaping the positivity level of any organizational culture through mindsets, communication, and targeted strategies. Adopting research-backed techniques like caring confrontation of negativity, mediation, empathy, accountability, and positive affirmations allows leaders to directly tackle negativity at its source before it spreads. However, managing negativity is not a single intervention but rather an ongoing process requiring constant reinforcement of a growth mindset where mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn, and where cultural celebrations and thanks are given consistently. Leaders must also be attuned to the unique stressors of their industry and proactively mitigate factors like burnout, unrealistic demands or lack of resources that breed negativity. While positive change requires effort, research clearly shows that organizations with happier, less stressed employees outperform on key metrics of innovation, productivity, retention and reputation. As leaders, making positivity a priority strategic initiative pays off not just for culture, but for the long term success of any business. By understanding how to identify and intervene on negativity constructively before it dominates the culture, leaders have an important tool to boost engagement across their teams and organizations.


References


  • Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Amabile, T. M., Schatzel, E. A., Moneta, G. B., & Kramer, S. J. (2004). Leader behaviors and the work environment for creativity: Perceived leader support. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(1), 5-32.

  • Bartel, C. A., & Saavedra, R. (2000). The collective construction of work group moods. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45(2), 197-231.

  • Beal, D. J., Trougakos, J. P., Weiss, H. M., & Green, S. G. (2006). Episodic processes in emotional labor: Perceptions of affective delivery and regulation strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), 1053–1065.

  • CareerBuilder. (2016). Nearly 70% of employees would consider looking for a new job if their workplace became more negative [Press release]. http://press.careerbuilder.com/2017-05-23-Nearly-70-of-Employees-Would-Consider-Looking-for-a-New-Job-if-Their-Workplace-Became-More-Negative

  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

  • Gallup. (2017). State of the American workplace. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx

  • Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2004). Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.

  • Guasp, A. (2020). The effects of office life on our health and wellbeing – and what we can do about it. British Medical Journal, 368.

  • Scott, B. A., Barnes, C. M., & Wagner, D. T. (2010). Chameleonic or consistent? A multilevel investigation of emotional labor variability and self-monitoring. Academy of Management Journal, 53(5), 905-926.

  • Scott, B. A., Matamala, A., & Pabel, A. (2019). Understanding the link between discretionary emotional labor, emotional dissonance, and employee well-being. Personnel Psychology, 71(2), 241–260.

  • Staw, B. M., Sutton, R. I., & Pelled, L. H. (1994). Employee positive emotion and favorable outcomes at the workplace. Organization Science, 5(1), 51-71.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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