How To Deal with Negative People On Your Team

Have you ever worked with someone who’s like a human raincloud…or more like a thundercloud? Are they constantly casting a shadow over you and your team’s spirit? I bet you have. It’s a challenge we all face at some point.

A study by doctoral students William Felps and Terence Mitchell, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that a single “toxic” or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. They discovered that a lone negative team member can lead to defensive mechanisms, trust deterioration, and the physical and psychological disengagement of other team members, ultimately destroying the positive culture of the team.

In our leadership program, Dance Floor Theory, we call these people Negative Nellies. They are the ones on your dance floor actively trying to pull everyone else off and ruin the party.

So, um, yeah, bad people are bad.

But dealing with them isn’t always the easiest. In this post, I’ll give you a step-by-step strategy for handling the Negative Nellies on your team.

But before I do that… it’s story time!

Dealing with Negative Nellies

Devin ran a real-estate management firm, and his team was very close. They celebrated everything from birthdays to anniversaries together. Devin’s team was so close-knit that they probably knew each other’s dental records. But lurking beneath this Brady Bunch exterior, Devin was running a team that was about to rot from the inside out, all because of one team member.

Four years ago, Devin hired Pat through a friendly recommendation. Against his standard hiring protocol to match applicants with company values, he hired Pat quickly without a thorough vetting process. During Pat’s first year, she hit all her metrics, which pleased Devin. On the sidelines, however, a few of his other team members commented on her negative attitude during meetings and team outings. During Pat’s second year, she continued to reach her metrics, but other employees kept commenting about her negative attitude. During Pat’s third year, a fellow team member submitted his resignation to Devin, citing Pat as part of why he was leaving.

Another team member brought the topic up to Devin. He said that despite everyone else on the team feeling connected, people couldn’t stand Pat’s negative attitude, which was hurting the whole team’s morale. Devin realized that something needed to be done quickly, or else others were planning to resign as well.

Devin was torn because Pat consistently performed well. But he didn’t want to lose other members of his team who were not only talented but also fit the culture of his company. Despite Pat’s high-performance ability, she was clearly a Negative Nelly.

Negative Nellies, like Pat, can be high performers within their role, but their negative attitude causes damage to the rest of the team. An NN is often someone who doesn’t align with the values of the company. Gallup research uses the term “Activity Disengaged” to describe NNs. Researchers Felps and Mitchell, whom I mentioned above, define negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of the work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.

So what can be done?

Tip #1: Confront

Unfortunately, supervisors are notoriously bad at confronting and dealing with difficult people. In his book, A Team of Leaders, Paul Gustavson describes this concept: “Dealing with difficult people is something that most supervisors are not usually comfortable with.”

But the first step in mitigating the negative effects of Negative Nellies is to confront them.

Confronting a Negative Nelly is like telling your friend they have bad breath. It’s not easy, but you have to do it for their own good.

Your meeting’s goal is to gauge the NN’s awareness of their behavior and then decide on a plan of action.

Here are three tips to help you better confront your negative Nellies:

#1 – People vs. Problem, not Person vs. Person: Make the situation be you and them against the problem instead of you against them. As Henry Cloud said in his book Integrity, “Be hard on the issue, soft on the person.”

By focusing on the issue instead of the person, you’re on the same team, solving the situation together.

#2 – Use a Third Point: Document the issue and use that data as a third point (like a piece of paper) to reference during a confrontational meeting. Having a third point will amplify your and their feelings about the problem. It also directs the negative energy towards the external object instead of each other.

#3 – Actually listen: Actually listening during a confrontation? That’s as rare as a teenager without a phone. Most just nod and pretend until it’s their turn to talk.

So much conflict happens because neither side listens to the other. Ask questions and listen to what they are saying. Don’t try to think about what you will say next while they are talking; just listen. That way, even if you agree to disagree, both sides can say that they felt heard. Often, people just want to be heard.

“I could save myself a lot of wear and tear with people if I just learned to understand them.” – Ralph Ellison

Now that you’ve confronted them, it’s time to move on to the next step: deciding whether to fire or keep them.

Tip #2: Fire / Keep

Many business strategy books, like The Energy Bus, discuss the goal of having the right people on the bus, in the right seat, at the right time. After confronting an NN, you have to decide whether to keep the person or fire them. If you choose to fire them, do it quickly and move on. A CEO once told me during a strategy session, “I’ve never regretted firing someone, but many times I’ve regretted keeping someone too long.”

Hiring expert Geoff Smart discusses the idea that A players want to work with A Players. B and C players also want to work with A players, but A players don’t want to work with B or C players. A players will often leave a company if the leadership doesn’t fire the B or C players.

If you are still on the fence about firing an NN, co-founder of 1-800-Got-Junk, Cameron Herold, says the cost of keeping bad employees can be as high as 15x their salary. This is due to issues with current employees, company systems, and clients. Jack Welch, former CEO of General 

Electric, was famous for firing the bottom 10 percent of his employees every year and replacing them with new people. In his book Delivering Happiness, the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh discusses a time when he fired several underperforming employees. By doing so, he discovered that the remaining passionate Zappos employees could do just as much work with fewer people. Are you convinced yet?

“If you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter the right direction.” – Jim Collins, Good To Great

Let’s say that after your conversation with them, you’ve decided you aren’t going to fire them. If that’s the case, then we get to move on to step #3, which is to Fix them.

Tip #3: Fix It

If only fixing workplace issues were as easy as updating your software – ‘Oh, Pat’s got a bug? 

Let’s just download the ‘Less Cranky’ patch.’ Unfortunately, there is still work involved. Here are the three steps involved in fixing the problem.

Identify the Real Issue: When Devin confronted Pat about the problem, he discovered that the amount of travel that Pat was doing for her work weighed heavily on her. It was causing her to have health issues that were spilling over into everything in her life. Pat actually loved the company, but the particular role she was in was wearing her down.

The best way to identify the real issue is to use both qualitative and quantitative methods, or as I like to call it, ‘playing Sherlock Holmes with a calculator.’ Qualitative means talking with people and hearing their side of the story. Quantitative means looking at the data and seeing what the data is saying.

It’s crucial to find out the root cause of the negative behavior. In Pat’s case, excessive travel was impacting her health and mood. The key is to have an open, honest conversation to unearth the underlying issues. Remember, sometimes the problem might not be work-related but personal. Be empathetic but focused on finding solutions that benefit the employee and the team.

Create an Action Plan: Once the core issue is identified, it’s time to devise a plan. This could involve role adjustments, additional support, or even personal development opportunities. For Pat, it meant reducing travel. When creating this plan, ensure it’s realistic, measurable, and time-bound. Set clear expectations and milestones to evaluate progress.

Follow-up and Check-in: Regular check-ins are crucial for monitoring progress and making necessary adjustments. These sessions provide an opportunity for feedback and a reaffirmation of commitment from both sides. Devin and Pat checked in monthly to track Pat’s position change. In the end, Pat continued to be a high performer. Because of her change in travel, thus her health, and her attitude, the rest of the team started to enjoy being around her.

And there you have it! Confront, decide, and fix – it’s like a weird corporate version of ‘stop, drop, and roll.’ Dealing with Negative Nellies is about understanding, supporting, and guiding them towards positive change. However, it’s also about being realistic. If the negative behavior persists despite your best efforts, it may be time to part ways for the betterment of the team and organization.

Remember the key steps:

  • Confront with empathy and clarity.
  • Decide whether to Fire or Keep based on their potential for change and impact on the team.
  • Fix the issue by identifying the root cause, creating an action plan, and following up regularly.

Your role as a leader is to manage and transform your team into a positive, productive force. By tackling the issue of Negative Nellies head-on, you’re not just solving a problem; you’re cultivating a healthier, more positive work environment. Remember, a single change can ripple through your entire team, elevating everyone’s performance and morale.

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