Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


The Negatives of Negativity

Volume: March 2017

Charlene never seemed to see the positive in anything. When birthdays were celebrated in the workplace, she dwelled on how her colleague was now another year older. When she received pay increases, rather than saying thank you she stated that now she would have to pay more taxes. When someone received a promotion, she would imply that it was because the person was a brown-noser as opposed to a talented team member. In fact, Charlene’s negativity was so legendary in her department that her co-workers referred to her as Negative-Nelly. Even to her face. The reasons that she remained employed were several-fold. First, she was the longest tenured person in the department. Second, she was considered a high-performer and possessing of specialized skills. Third, she had survived a variety of managers and none of them challenged her to be a more positive influence in the workplace. Do you have a Charlene in your department or workplace? She is no fun, is she? In fact, Charlene’s negativity crushes team productivity in several ways.

  1. Lower Morale. Many of Charlene’s team members do not feel that they can be authentic in the workplace because she will smack down their positive behavior. Every team member walks on eggshells around her. In sum, when team members cannot be genuine, morale suffers.
  1. More Mistakes. Charlene’s heavy handedness has created an atmosphere where fewer questions are asked in the workplace. Team members know that if they ask a question (of anyone) that Charlene will make some snide remark that insults their competence. The result is a department that makes more mistakes than they would normally because team members are afraid to show any weaknesses. Counter intuitively, Charlene is delighted by her team member’s mistakes. It is the only time that she seems to be happy.  As such, Charlene’s reaction to the miscues of others positively reinforces the department’s mistake-prone ways because it is the only time that she is not a negative drain on the team.
  1. Lack of Focus. Walking on eggshells and low morale greatly decreases team members’ ability to focus on their work. Ironically, the only person who actually concentrates on what she is doing is Charlene. Thus, she ends up looking like a high-performer when in actuality she is systematically destroying the productivity of an entire group of people.

The challenge for most leaders faced with a Charlene-like situation is that they lead by using a pleasant personality. What I mean by this is that many leaders are nice and get along with people. Heck, that is how most people get promoted in the first place. By and large, this type of “get along” leadership style works very well with groups of performing professionals. However, many nice people are also non-confrontational. In other words, they do not assertively deal with problems that surface in the workplace. When a leader delays in addressing workplace problems, thorny issues fester and can result in a cornucopia of dysfunction. This was certainly the case with a negative team member such as Charlene. The question then becomes, what should a leader do about the Charlene’s of the world. Well hold on to your hat, here are five actions for leaders to ponder:

  1. Be on the lookout for workplace issues. In other words, do not be blind or in denial regarding problems in your area of responsibility. Jack Welch referred to this as “seeing things the way they are.” Certainly be an optimist regarding what your team can accomplish, but simultaneously be a realist regarding hurdles that need to be overcome.
  1. Embrace a process for driving dialog. If a workplace issue is identified, I strongly recommend executing a process called How To Deliver Difficult Conversations. This process will provide a roadmap that will allow you to engage with the offending team member and give them an opportunity to turn a positive page.
  1. Follow up and document. Once the difficult conversation has been delivered to Charlene, it is the leader’s responsibility to chart her progress or lack thereof. In this regard, make certain that you document her positive contributions and behaviors. Likewise, clearly catalog errors, poor judgment, and bad behavior. While documenting the latter areas, it is important to showcase the impact that Charlene’s work behavior has on other team members and on group accomplishment.
  1. Cross-train team members. Do not be held hostage by a team member who appears to hold all the cards. If they have special skills or knowledge, challenge them to share it with others. If they refuse to share knowledge, challenge your team members to by-pass the Negative-Nelly and figure out how to build a better mousetrap on their own.
  1. Reward questions and risk-taking. Attempt to shift the culture of your department to one that thrives on asking meaningful questions and sharing great answers. Create a special prize for the team member who asks the best question during a given work week. Coach your team members and help them learn and grow. In the process, you will neutralize the impact that people like Charlene have on your team. As Charlene realizes that her power is diminishing, she will get with the program or leave. Either result will be met with jubilation by your team.

Bottom Line: Negativity has no place in the work world. Leaders who knowingly allow negative team members to flourish without attempting to correct the situation are not truly leading. They are existing. Seek to be a leader who inspires your people through positive action. Accentuate positives. Offer constructive criticism when necessary. Get gutsy and engage in difficult conversations when needed. The result will be an increase in your followership, an uptick in morale, and productivity that is world-class.

Until next time leaders, be well!

Doug Van Dyke is a Tampa Bay based executive coach, leadership development expert, strategic planner, and Certified Speaking ProfessionalTM. To enroll in a professional development program, call 941-776-1121, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or visit LeadershipSimplified.com

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