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How to Overcome Negativity in the Workplace

Overcome Negativity

“Negative people who won’t try to work together.”

— QA Team Lead

In the last post, we heard from a Social Work Supervisor whose team “couldn’t work together respectfully.” We wondered how it was possible that people who teach social skills for a living had none when it came to a task as important as getting along with coworkers.

Was it a case of a few bloated egos? Or was something more substantial at risk? Money? Career? An important project? We had no way of knowing for sure, but usually, it’s some of each. Because to blossom and bear fruit, a toxic personality needs a toxic environment.

Therefore, my advice to the Social Work Supervisor was to see where she could clear the air in the office. Maybe she could help her team resolve old misunderstandings. Or she could perhaps prevent future ones by adding transparency to important decisions. We also talked about companies who send employees on volunteer assignments to get them to know each other as helpful and caring individuals.

These strategies have their place. However, there is a significant class of workplace conflicts where they won’t do much good. In those cases, the problem is not the individual personalities or even the company culture. The problem is that people’s responsibilities, as they understand them, are in direct conflict with each other.

Since today’s comment comes from a Quality Assurance Team Lead, let’s talk about quality assurance. In essence, QA is finding fault with other people’s work—not so much with the final product, but with the way they go about it. A QA technician will typically test your adherence to a standard process—which may or may not be your idea of the shortest path to success.

Here, you have the likely makings of an office drama: an employee focused on the outcome and a QA who is a stickler for process. Whatever differences arise between the two of them will not be settled by their own efforts. The solution has to come from higher up the food chain.

Consider the case of a Scrum master friend of mine. A Scrum master’s job is to make sure that all team communications follow a set process. The idea, of course, is to help everyone stay on track and maybe even avoid the kinds of squabbles that are upsetting our QA Team Lead.

So, the Scrum master comes to work every day and tries to get her team to change their habits and use the new system. Any guesses as to the team’s response? Exactly! Everyone ignores her. Why? Because the boss did not insist on making the change. There’s no consequence to employees for defending their old ways, and, hence, no working together with the Scrum master.

Another friend of mine is a product line manager. He had to take over a product where customer support consisted of a curmudgeonly old guy who compulsively hoarded all the data. Can you imagine what happened when my friend tried to learn about the product? Total obstruction and resistance.

It wasn’t hard to see what was going on. After the initial shock, my friend realized that the man was paranoid he might lose his job and fiercely defended his turf. What’s more, he turned out not to be so crazy. The company had been through many acquisitions, every one of which resulted in layoffs. The old man’s strategy had consistently paid off; he had kept his job for fifty years!

In both cases, the employees’ negative and uncooperative behaviors, although understandable, are hurting the company’s bottom line. The management would be smart to investigate and resolve these conflicts. It’s not smart to pay the Scrum master to do something she cannot do. Likewise, it’s not fair to throw the product line manager into a cage with a disgruntled and paranoid employee. Someone with the power to make a deal should step in and restore sanity.

That said, sometimes negativity serves a purpose. It happens when employees legitimately resist a terrible idea. And here’s a story about that.

An engineering company decided it could cut costs by handing off all business development activities to corporate sales and marketing. One manager disagreed with this decision. His business unit developed complex custom solutions that were sold directly to customers’ R&D. He knew he needed engineers to bring in the business, and that corporate sales lacked the specialized knowledge required to close the deals.

Unfortunately, this manager was overruled. The company went ahead with the restructuring plan and subsequently lost lucrative contracts. The manager, seeing his efforts derailed by penny-wise-dollar-foolish leadership, left the company. More losses. More cost cutting. More layoffs.

Negativity in the workplace gets a bad rap. Nobody likes a Negative Nancy, and everybody loves Yelena, the Yes-Woman. But it’s important to look beneath the surface. Is the uncooperative employee playing office politics? Or is there a solid business reason to withhold cooperation?

It is the executive management’s job to make strategic decisions, and everyone else’s job is to carry them out. However, strict subordination implies that execs take care to make good choices and avoid the dumb ones. A business needs to master the art of inclusive decision-making to be sure it can stand behind its choices. (See Chapter 19, Give Them a Voice, in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? to learn more.)

When the employee is in the wrong, a manager has many options. A less obvious choice is to look at the company and see whether its business practices make it easier or harder for people to get along. You will never eliminate every conflict, but you can establish common ground for your people to stand on. Genuine respect for the company, its governing principles and its decisions should be that common ground.

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If you like getting along with employees, you might like my book, because it makes people want to work for you and with you.

Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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