How to Manage a Negative Employee

Gustavo Grodnitzky Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

How should you handle an employee who is chronically negative about your company?

It is unfortunate, but this question and others like it arise with some frequency in my work. Just last week, I was asked the above question by a participant in Culture Catalyst, an eight-week program I offer to leadership teams.

There are several steps that might lead to a change in behavior for a chronically negative employee.

Step 1: Assume Benign Intent Behind the Negativity

Assume that the negative employee’s behavior is driven not by some ill will toward others or the organization, but by some unknown and benign reason. If there is ill will, it will make itself clear through this process of correction. But there is no reason to make that assumption before you intervene.  This foundation will allow you to approach the situation with your own positive intention, modeling the behavior you hope to see.

Step 2: Coach the Negative Employee

Discuss with the employee the benefits of their changing their behavior — for them, for their team, for the organization. As you do, keep in mind that people don’t resist change; they resist loss.  So identify what the negative employee is afraid of losing.  You might assume that it’s money or their job. But, much more often, it’s something like influence, power, control, authority, competence, comfort, certainty, etc.

Step 3: Train the Employee to Succeed in Your Culture

Training demonstrates that we want to set up our people for success. When you are guiding a negative employee through change, you may need to provide training for them on the skills they need to succeed in your culture. Sometimes this training may focus on specific technical skills.  Other times training may focus on the social/emotional skills and behaviors that are often interpreted as “attitude.”

Step 4: If Negativity Continues, Set Them Free

If steps 1-3 do not create change for your negative employee, then set them free. I use this term very intentionally. I am a huge fan of retention. I love to work with companies that have had employees with them for years, as long as:

  1. The employees continue to be high performers.
  2. They continue to contribute to the workplace culture, both where it is and where it’s going.

People genuinely want to be successful where they work. If they can’t be successful in your culture, set them free to go be successful in someone else’s.

When we take a clear, conspicuous, predictable path to helping negative employees change, we create clarity in our culture. The people we most want to stay do stay and raise the level of their performance. The people who are on the fence receive an opportunity to raise their performance through steps 1-3. If they can’t or won’t, we set them free to be successful elsewhere and we protect our culture.

I’d love to hear your questions or comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!