A wealth of current research tells us that the most critical factor in controlling undesirable turnover and increasing retention of talented people are the skills of managers. People join companies but they leave managers. Satisfied employees are critical to the success of your business. If they’re not happy on the job, customers are not happy being with them.
So what do you do when you have an employee who is just not happy? Every business can have “the glass is half empty” person on the lookout for something to go wrong. You can recognize them: They spend the majority of the day in a negative slump and critical of everything from projects to people. And other people — once happy and motivated — are starting to gossip and criticize. Negativity is like the flu: It’s contagious. It’s also expensive. Negativity costs companies millions in terms of productivity.
So how do you deal with an employee whose negativity is starting to rub off on other people? Our first instinct may be that the person’s behavior is just about their “bad attitude” and try to ignore it. Not a great idea. This can actually fuel the fire by setting a culture of negativity. In fact, if we do nothing about the negativity, we are condoning the behavior and subsequently, endorsing it. You do need to take some action.
Often at the heart of a negative attitude are fear and uncertainty. Change is the biggest single cause of workplace negativity. Even if that new billing system is for the better, people will automatically ask themselves: What am I losing? For employees, change automatically equals the loss of something comfortable, and they will resist it.
Here are some simple steps for quelling the office critic, paraphrased from some great work by Chris Penttila, a freelance journalist.
1. Understand change from the employee’s perspective. Employees can put up with change as long as they can talk openly about it. Remember most negative people don’t know that they’re negative because no one ever tells them.
2. Find the fear, then focus on solutions. Teach negative employees to focus on offering solutions, not just criticism. Turning the griper into a solution provider gives them a genuine avenue to contribute.
3. Do some coaching. Work with the negative person on improving their attitude. Chances are, these people are complaining because they think they have good ideas that haven’t been heard.
Ultimately, employers can work too long and hard with some negative people when it’s better just to cut your losses, recognizing a bad fit. If there’s no improvement after three to six months, maybe it’s time to let them go (legally, documented, etc., of course). After you let a negative person go, talk with employees about the future of their workplace. It can be the perfect opportunity to take the pulse of your company culture.
Marcia Bagnall is Director of the Chemeketa Small Business Development Center and instructor of Small Business Management Program. The Small-Business Adviser column is produced by the center and appears each Sunday. Questions can be submitted to SBDC@chemeketa.edu. Visit the SBDC at 626 High Street NE. in downtown Salem or call (503) 399-5088.