When you have a negative team member, strive to understand what’s happening.
Leading a negative team member can be frustrating. You have a vision, and you’re energized about your new solution, but they’re skeptical, critical, and keep bringing up problems.
Or, you have to translate new strategic objectives to your team and one person just can’t seem to go there. They shake their head, sigh, and say things like, “Who comes up with these ideas? That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Perhaps you ask for their ideas and they cross their arms, purse their lips and say nothing. When you ask what’s going on, they smirk and say, “Right, like you really want our ideas.”
Why You Have a Negative Team Member
When you see a consistent pattern of negativity from someone on your team, it can be tempting to jump in and try to coach them out of it. But until you understand where their negativity comes from, that’s a mistake. You might miss a big chance to improve your leadership, fix a problem, or truly help the person be more effective.
There are four areas that can create the behaviors we interpret as negative—and only one of them is a situation where coaching would be most appropriate.
1. Your Leadership
One common cause of employee negativity is poor leadership. Before addressing a negative team member’s behavior, do a self-audit of these common frustrations and make sure you’re not inadvertently causing the negativity.
Toxic Courage Crushers
If you use shame, blame, intimidation, and fear to get results, you can expect negativity and fear in return. You can use these negative emotions to get people moving, but they come with a high price. Your team won’t trust you, they won’t want to give more than their minimum effort, and you certainly won’t get any creativity or problem-solving.
Eliminate these toxic behaviors from your leadership before doing anything else. Otherwise, you are modeling and asking for the very behaviors that frustrate you.
Lack of appreciation
No one enjoys feeling taken for granted. Do you consistently encourage and recognize people? If not, that lack of appreciation and recognition for who they are and what they do can lead to resentment.
Build a habit of regular encouragement. Make it specific, meaningful to the individual, and relevant to their results and how they achieved them.
Lack of Accountability or Follow-Through
No one wants to waste their time or effort. When you don’t practice consistent accountability, you send a message that you don’t value the time and work of your team members who get it done. When you start new initiatives and don’t follow through with them, people lose trust and you can easily find yourself with a negative team member.
Commit to consistent accountability and follow-through. Invite the team on the journey with you. Accountability is a team game and if you sincerely invite them to hold you accountable too, you’ll see a rapid change. Start with a clear shared understanding of what success looks like, check for understanding with one another, schedule the finish, and check on progress along the way.
Treating People Like Machines
If you frequently think (or worse, say): “Just do what I tell you,” then you’ve stopped treating people like people and have reduced them to a mechanical job function. Of course, there is a role for training and learning how to do a job. But once a team member is through training, they will have their own experience, ideas, and solutions to contribute. When you discount their thoughts or always have the best answer, it demotivates people and creates a negative “why bother” attitude.
Cultivate your curiosity and ask people for their perspectives, ideas, and solutions. Encourage people to bring their empathy, fun, and humanity to their work.
2. Organizational Circumstances
You can be a human-centered leader who shows up with confidence and humility, focuses on results and relationships, but still have negative team members. Sometimes, it’s the organizational circumstances that lead to negativity. A heart-to-heart conversation with team members can help uncover these issues and give you an opportunity to support your team.
Rapidly changing priorities
People like to feel a sense of achievement. When priorities constantly change and people can’t finish what they started, it’s frustrating. It’s natural for people to feel like “Why bother doing this new thing when it’s just going to change again?”
You might not be able to stop priorities from shifting, but you can create a positive environment that creates a sense of completion, honor the team’s work and adaptability, and celebrates achievement and learning. Also, just acknowledging the emotional toll and reality can help build connection and lessen negativity.
Reorganizations, layoffs, and organizational instability
In larger organizations, these massive changes cause fear and negativity as people lose their bearing, wonder if they are next, and, as with rapidly changing priorities, feel resigned and wonder “why bother?”
First, regularly advocate for your team and give decision-makers the information they need to make the best decisions. Next, as you lead your team through uncertainty, work to lessen the stress. Be transparent—don’t make up what you don’t know. Focus on what is known, on what hasn’t changed, and on the small wins that the team can make with one another. Communicate your appreciation for your people and the value of the work they do.
Unhealthy matrix organization or obstructionist bureaucracy
In unhealthy matrix organizations and bureaucratic cultures, it can feel like no one will decide or take responsibility for anything. The consequences are the familiar negative cocktail of resignation, hopelessness, and the feeling that you can’t get anything done.
If you’re a senior leader, invest in making your culture and structure work. The design might make sense on paper and the shared resources make the numbers work, but you’ll need culture, leadership training, and values work to support the structure and make it effective.
If you’re not a senior leader, you can still support your team by helping them learn how to navigate the structure and build the cross-functional relationships that will help them succeed. Also, you can build relationships yourself with other key leaders to create pockets of effectiveness inside a dysfunctional structure.
3. Their Personality or Approach
For some people, their negativity isn’t about difficult circumstances or your leadership. It’s part of their personality or approach to life. If you told this person they were being negative, they would honestly respond, “No I’m not—I’m trying to prevent a problem, avoid needless frustrations, or keep us on track.”
Often, these team members are analytic and focus on tasks before people. They are valuable team members. They can help you turn great ideas into reality while avoiding needless time-sinks and headaches with a little more planning.
And, they can come across as negative, even when they don’t see themselves that way. Their way of addressing ideas can feel caustic and make other team members (or you) stop sharing ideas because you don’t want to face the inevitable list of problems and negativity.
This is a negative team member where coaching can be very helpful. You can use the I.N.S.P.I.R.E. Method to have a conversation about what you’ve noticed and the impact on the team. Reinforce the value of their thinking and then get into some ways for them to bring the full benefit of their analysis to the team.
You might share this article with them: How to Be Less Negative and Still Be Yourself. It will give them the tools to affirm the ideas they hear, frame their concerns as support, and recognize when they are most prone to destructive negativity.
4. Mental Health
The final reason you might experience a negative team member includes challenges with mental health. These can range from temporary issues to long-term conditions. Through the pandemic, many leaders have become more familiar with mental health struggles and the need to support their people through these challenges.
As you navigate these issues, begin by talking with your human resource partners and get familiar with how your organization can support people when they need it. Here are a few of the most common mental health challenges that can show up in a negative team member.
If your team has had a tough work environment for a long time, it’s normal for people to burn out.
World-class athletes and their coaches build intentional rest and recovery into the training schedule. Your team needs that too. If the burnout hasn’t happened yet, how can you build intentional rest and recovery into your team’s schedule? Talk about it as a team. Rotating time off, lighter assignment weeks, and intentional fun are ways to begin.
Difficult life circumstances
All of us have these times. Losing a loved one. A child’s struggles. A major illness. An accident.
Start with empathy, acknowledge the situation, and that you want to help. Would time off help? Or a temporary shift in responsibilities? Don’t assume you have the right answer for them—have the conversation. Staying engaged in their work may help your team member navigate the challenge.
Depression or other conditions
In the United States, over 7% of the population experience at least one depressive episode, and nearly one in five live with a mental illness of some kind. Lead long enough and you or a team member will experience it.
There are many ways to support a team member who is living with depression or mental health challenges. Don’t diagnose or offer medical advice. Rather, show up with support and without judgment. If the person is working through a depressive episode, research suggests that simplifying their work scope, offering more encouragement, and acknowledging wins, along with a flexible work schedule that includes interacting with people can help.
When to Help a Negative Team Member Move On
Not every person is a good fit for every team. There will be times when the best you can do for a negative team member is to help them move on. Maybe there is a better fit for them elsewhere or maybe the forced move will help them re-evaluate how they move through the world. Either way, the negative person and your team will be better for the change.
Work through the four areas above and, as you talk with the negative team member, coach, and have necessary I.N.S.P.I.R.E. performance conversations, evaluate the impact of their behavior on the team’s morale and performance.
If the person drags down morale and performance over time and doesn’t make an effort to show up differently, it’s probably time for a change. Don’t let yourself get stuck with a “brilliant jerk.”
Finally, there is a range of human behavior and if their negativity isn’t adversely affecting the team or performance, it’s okay to let them be.
Negative team members give you an opportunity to improve your leadership, organizational health, and help the person be more effective. How you help them depends on the cause of their negativity. When you take the time to engage, learn, and respond appropriately your team, organization, and leadership will benefit.
We’d love to hear from you: How do you support your negative team members? Has a leader ever helped you navigate your negativity? Leave us a comment and let us know!