I wish I had a penny for every leader or manager I worked with who accepted some form of negativity at work. Habitual negativity can become so unpleasant, that it’s hard to ignore.

Habitual negativity at work does impact results. This study by Michigan State University found productivity was directly affected, as “negative-minded workers are more likely to become mentally fatigued and defensive and experience a drop-off in production”.

I worked with a business which was missing its shipping deadlines. Customer complaints were escalating and arguments at work leading to discipline interviews were becoming the norm. Things had become untenable and the CEO was at a loss as to how to stop this downward spiral into negativity. To continue to expand into international markets, they had to solve their internal problems.

What I found out from the CEO was negativity at work had almost always been the cultural norm, but it had not been a big problem until recently. Like a rolling snowball, the negativity had grown and accelerated until it could no longer be ignored.

Examples of negativity at work

The worst extremes of habitual negativity at work like bullying and harassment usually come to light fairly quickly. Research shows other poor behaviours, outlined below, cause almost as much distress to fellow workers as bullying, but they are often not viewed as seriously:

1. Claiming Credit for Someone Else’s Work

Claiming credit for someone else’s work is a subtle but highly detrimental form of negativity at work. This behaviour not only undermines the contributions of the original creator but also breeds resentment and distrust among team members. For instance, if an employee presents a colleague’s project ideas as their own during a meeting, it can lead to feelings of injustice and demotivation. Over time, this practice can erode team morale and reduce overall productivity. To counteract this, it’s crucial to establish a culture of recognition and fairness, where contributions are acknowledged, and credit is given where it is due.

2. Making a Member of Staff Appear Incompetent Through Persistent Criticism

Setting out to make a member of staff appear incompetent or make their lives miserable through persistent criticism is another harmful behaviour. For example, a manager might constantly highlight an employee’s mistakes in public or provide excessively harsh feedback, creating an atmosphere of fear and low self-esteem. This behaviour not only affects the targeted individual’s mental health but also negatively impacts their performance and job satisfaction. Encouraging constructive feedback and fostering a supportive environment can help mitigate this issue. Managers should focus on offering balanced critiques that include positive reinforcement and developmental guidance.

3. Deliberately Withholding Information or Providing Incorrect Information

Deliberately withholding information or providing incorrect information is a subtle form of sabotage that can severely impact workplace dynamics. For instance, if a team member deliberately omits crucial data needed for a project or gives misleading instructions, it can lead to mistakes and missed deadlines. This behaviour creates confusion, frustration, and mistrust within the team. Promoting transparency and open communication is essential to prevent such issues. Establishing clear protocols for information sharing and holding individuals accountable for their actions can help ensure that all team members have the information they need to perform their duties effectively.

4. Isolating, Deliberately Ignoring, or Excluding Someone from Activities

Isolating, deliberately ignoring, or excluding someone from activities is a covert yet damaging form of negativity at work. For example, excluding a colleague from important meetings, team lunches, or decision-making processes can make them feel undervalued and marginalised. This behaviour not only affects the individual’s sense of belonging and morale but also hinders team cohesion and collaboration. Creating an inclusive work environment where all team members are encouraged to participate and contribute is vital. Ensuring that everyone is included in relevant activities and decisions helps to build a more cohesive, supportive, and productive team.

By addressing these subtle but harmful behaviours, organisations can create a more positive and respectful workplace environment, which is essential for employee well-being and organisational success.

Subtle Negative Behaviours

1. Blaming Each Other and Overreacting When Things Go Wrong

Blaming each other when things go wrong is a subtle but pervasive negative behaviour in the workplace. This creates a toxic environment where individuals are quick to point fingers rather than collaboratively solve the issue. When blame is coupled with overreaction, it amplifies the negativity, causing stress and anxiety among team members. Such behaviour undermines trust and stifles open communication, making it difficult for the team to function effectively. Addressing mistakes with a calm and constructive approach is crucial for fostering a supportive and productive work environment. Encouraging a culture of accountability without blame helps to build resilience and team cohesion.

2. Defensiveness and Refusal to Learn from Mistakes

Defensiveness is another subtle yet damaging behaviour in the workplace. When employees refuse to acknowledge their mistakes and instead become defensive, it hinders personal and professional growth. This attitude prevents individuals from learning from their errors and improving their performance. Defensiveness also discourages feedback, which is essential for development and innovation. By fostering an environment where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, organisations can promote a culture of continuous improvement. Encouraging open dialogue and constructive criticism helps to minimise defensiveness and supports the growth of both individuals and the team as a whole.

3. Gossiping

Gossiping can significantly harm workplace morale and trust. This behaviour involves sharing unverified or private information about colleagues, often to their detriment. Gossip creates divisions within the team, erodes trust, and can lead to a hostile work environment. It undermines the integrity of professional relationships and distracts from productive work. Addressing gossip requires creating a culture of respect and professionalism where open and honest communication is valued. Encouraging employees to address issues directly with those involved, rather than discussing them behind their backs, helps to reduce gossip and build a more cohesive and respectful workplace.

4. Jumping to Negative Conclusions and Being Negative About Each Other

Jumping to negative conclusions and being overly critical of colleagues can create a pervasive sense of negativity at work. This behaviour often stems from a lack of trust and poor communication. When team members assume the worst about each other, it leads to misunderstandings and conflicts. It’s important to foster a culture of assuming positive intent and giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Encouraging open communication and providing clear, constructive feedback helps to prevent negative assumptions and promotes a more positive and collaborative work environment. This approach builds trust and strengthens team dynamics.

5. Black and White Thinking

Black-and-white thinking, or viewing situations in extremes without acknowledging the complexities, can be detrimental in the workplace. This mindset prevents individuals from seeing the nuances and potential solutions in a given situation. It leads to rigid thinking and an inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Encouraging a more flexible and nuanced approach to problem-solving helps to mitigate black-and-white thinking. Promoting critical thinking and open-mindedness allows employees to consider multiple perspectives and find more effective solutions. This shift in mindset fosters a more innovative and adaptable work environment.

6. Focusing on Problems Without Striving for Solutions

Constantly focusing on problems without seeking solutions creates a negative atmosphere and hinders progress. While identifying issues is important, dwelling on them without taking proactive steps to resolve them leads to frustration and stagnation. Encouraging a solution-oriented mindset is crucial for maintaining a positive and productive work environment. This involves fostering a culture where employees feel empowered to propose and implement solutions. Providing resources and support for problem-solving helps to shift the focus from the problem to finding effective resolutions. This proactive approach not only improves morale but also enhances overall team performance.

7. Juggling for Status

Juggling for status, where employees compete for recognition and power rather than working collaboratively, can create a toxic work environment. This behaviour leads to unhealthy competition, undermines teamwork, and fosters resentment among colleagues. It’s important to promote a culture of collaboration and mutual respect, where success is measured by collective achievements rather than individual status. Encouraging team-based goals and recognising collaborative efforts helps to reduce status-driven behaviours. Creating opportunities for all employees to contribute and be recognised for their efforts fosters a more inclusive and supportive work environment, enhancing overall team effectiveness.

8. Cultivating a Bleak and Depressing Outlook for the Business

Cultivating a bleak and depressing outlook for the business can demoralise employees and stifle motivation. This behaviour often arises from a lack of confidence in the organisation’s future or leadership. It’s important to address this by fostering a positive and hopeful vision for the business. Communicating clear goals and celebrating achievements helps to build confidence and morale. Encouraging leadership to be transparent and engage with employees about the company’s direction and challenges fosters trust and optimism. A positive outlook is crucial for maintaining motivation and driving the business forward.

9. Blaming Management

Blaming management for issues within the organisation is a common but counterproductive behaviour. It creates a divide between employees and leadership, fostering a culture of us-versus-them. This blame game detracts from addressing the root causes of problems and finding constructive solutions. Encouraging open communication between management and employees is essential for resolving issues collaboratively. Providing platforms for feedback and involving employees in decision-making processes helps to bridge the gap between management and staff. Building a culture of mutual respect and shared responsibility enhances organisational cohesion and effectiveness.

10. Agreeing to Actions in a Meeting, Only to Come Out and Complain

Agreeing to actions in a meeting, only to complain afterwards, undermines trust and accountability. This behaviour creates a façade of agreement while fostering underlying resentment and resistance. It’s important to encourage honest and open discussions during meetings, where employees feel comfortable expressing their concerns and opinions. Promoting a culture of transparency and follow-through helps to ensure that agreements made in meetings are genuine and actionable. Addressing issues directly and constructively, rather than complaining behind the scenes, fosters a more positive and effective work environment. This approach builds trust and ensures that team commitments are upheld.

How to link negativity to poor performance

When negative behaviours are more serious, it’s relatively easy to link them with misconduct and dignity at work type policies. When negativity at work is subtle, it’s more difficult.

Some leaders and managers don’t think they can link such negative behaviours with poor performance.  Performance criteria are often based on results, competencies or skills and so it’s difficult to quantify the impact of subtle negativity on performance in any meaningful way.

The way to link these subtle negative behaviours to performance is to assess the impact they have in terms of:

  • Productivity – How much time is wasted complaining, blocking a solution-orientated approach or resulting in disputes
  • Cost – How much does it cost to bicker, moan and de-motivate people with a stream of negativity?
  • Motivation – What is the impact of negativity on employee motivation and effort?

How to Transform Negativity At Work

Raising awareness and set standards is a must as well as an ability to transform negativity into more positive thinking and behaviours. Here are 6 ways you can make the switch.

1. Set Positive Standards for the Whole Team

By identifying the negative behaviours you don’t want to see, you can define and promote the positive behaviours you do want within your team. Rather than singling out individuals, focus on setting standards that apply to everyone. For instance, instead of tolerating gossip, encourage open and honest communication. Replace blame with accountability and collaboration. Establishing these positive standards helps create a cohesive and supportive environment where all team members understand the expected behaviours. This collective approach ensures that the entire team is aligned with the organisation’s values, fostering a more harmonious and productive workplace.

2. Leaders Model the Behaviors You Want to See

Leaders play a crucial role in shaping workplace culture by modelling the behaviours they want to see. It starts at the top, with leaders demonstrating integrity, respect, and professionalism in their daily interactions. When leaders show empathy, acknowledge their mistakes, and provide constructive feedback, they set a powerful example for their teams. For instance, a leader who actively listens to team members’ concerns and involves them in decision-making processes reinforces the importance of inclusive and respectful communication. By consistently embodying these positive behaviours, leaders inspire their teams to follow suit, creating a ripple effect throughout the organisation.

3. Teach People How to Get What They Want Constructively

Teaching people how to achieve their goals constructively is essential for maintaining a positive workplace environment. Show team members effective ways of voicing their views that engage rather than disengage others. For example, encourage the use of “I” statements to express concerns without assigning blame, such as “I feel overwhelmed by this deadline” instead of “You gave me too much work.” Providing training on communication skills, conflict resolution, and negotiation techniques can help employees express their needs and opinions respectfully and productively. This approach not only reduces tension but also fosters a more collaborative and supportive work environment.

4. Empower People to Offer Solutions

Empowering people to have their say and encouraging them to offer solutions is a key component of a positive workplace culture. When employees feel their opinions are valued and their ideas are heard, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. Create opportunities for team members to contribute their perspectives, such as through regular brainstorming sessions or suggestion boxes. For example, if an employee identifies a problem with a current process, encourage them to propose potential improvements. This participatory approach not only enhances problem-solving and innovation but also builds a sense of ownership and accountability within the team.

5. Develop a “No Blame” Culture

Developing a “no blame” culture, where errors and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn, is essential for fostering a supportive and resilient work environment. In a no-blame culture, the focus shifts from assigning fault to understanding what went wrong and how to prevent similar issues in the future. For instance, if a project deadline is missed, rather than blaming individuals, analyse the process to identify any gaps or inefficiencies. Encourage open discussions about mistakes and celebrate the lessons learned from them. This approach not only reduces fear and anxiety but also promotes continuous improvement and innovation. It helps create a safe space where employees feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting, knowing that they will be supported rather than penalised for their efforts.

Pivoting negativity isn’t always easy, but there are ways you can channel the energy to be a positive force if you have an intention for positive change.

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.