5 Ways to Battle Negativity in the Workplace


Few things can undermine an organization more than negativity. Sadly, sometimes an entire workplace’s culture falls victim to this motivation and performance killer. It doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a gradual process that gains momentum over time. Typically, it’s associated with a lack of leadership oversight, awareness and/or engagement.

There are telltale signs in these organizations. You’ll hear phrases like “I can’t” or “I won’t” stated much too often. Worse yet, they’re accepted much too often by supervisors and managers who range from being over-worked and harried to those who have simply capitulated to the situation. Here are a few other indicators you will likely see in these workplaces:

  • Low morale
  • Poor or inconsistent customer service
  • Frequent turnover and loss of talent
  • High sick leave usage
  • More formal complaints and grievances

If you’re reading this, you’re not the type of person who believes surrendering is a viable option. That’s good! But it’s important to keep in mind that organizational cultures evolve over time – so the likelihood of a quick fix or a gimmick approach overcoming the problem is less than winning a huge lottery jackpot. It will require an honest investment in the employees with heavy doses of energy, perseverance and patience.

With that in mind, following are five ways to start your battle against negativity:

1. Back to basics — “Why are we here?” When organizations fall victim to negativity, one of the side effects is a loss of purpose and identity. People will often work in isolation, focusing solely on their responsibilities with little regard to the broader impact of their duties. This results in lower productivity and failure to leverage the collective talent and capabilities of the work center.

This is a good time to reemphasize the organization’s mission statement, strategic goals and objectives. As I wrote in a post on critical thinking, it’s important for employees to know how they fit and how their duties contribute to the overall mission. The focus shouldn’t be on the strategic principles or to provide “bumper stickers” for the mission statement. What’s important is demonstrating how all this is operationalized in the work center – the nuts and bolts of what people do on a daily basis — and why it matters.

2. Listen actively and look for opportunities. Let’s face it, leaders at all levels are busy people. Unfortunately, that leads many supervisors to focus solely on deadlines, production targets and requirements, while also attending their fair share of meetings. While there are only so many hours in a day, it’s important to invest time in interacting with the workforce.

There are many ways to carve out time, whether it’s walking through a work center on the way to a meeting, or scheduling quick small group sessions to discuss current status. Regardless of how you carve out this time, it’s imperative you actively listen to your employees. Ask questions, especially if you hear those “I can’t” or “I won’t” type of responses. While they are danger signs, they are also opportunities to identify gaps and get a sense of where changes need to be made. Every encounter with an employee can be a fact finding mission. 

3. Emphasize development and training. If you’ve been actively listening and identifying gaps, you gain better insight into whether your employees have the right tools and resources as well as appropriate training and development. To put this into action, collaborate with your employees to determine any training needs. Help them generate an individual development plan which combines current job skills requirements with their short and long-term goals.

Even if they have no promotion or mobility desires, they still need to be current and productive in their position. This investment can yield tremendous results, but again, it’s not a quick fix. Development is an ongoing initiative. Having mentorship opportunities available will also help with the long-term nature of employee development.

4. Start early — maintain a strong onboarding program. A strong onboarding program is important, but even more so if the organization’s culture has turned negative. Starting new employees off on the right foot is critical and can build momentum in an organization. This is a great way to articulate the standards and the strategic vision mentioned previously.

A strong onboarding program can open up lines of communication and having experienced employees play a role in the process can refresh them along the way. I’ve been the “new guy” many times and was often surprised by the poor reception given in some workcenters. A bad initial impression can lead to dissatisfaction and higher turnover. Be prepared and have a plan for new employees and usher them into the organization — make them feel comfortable. It will pay dividends.

5. Hold people accountable. You can frame mission and vision statements and place them on a wall for all to see and write out your expectations and hand it out to all your employees. But if you don’t exercise accountability, they become similar to white noise. If people are falling below standards or not meeting expectations, it’s important to act as quickly as possible.

Explain how they are falling short and help them get back up to speed. When poor performance or behavior is left unchecked, it becomes the new standard. I don’t know many organizations can afford to let that happen. Leadership is not for the weak. It takes courage and the ability and willingness to provide feedback, counseling and if necessary, discipline.

These five ways to battle negativity are certainly not all-inclusive, but they are useful starting points in turning an organization around. It will require involved and invested leadership, which should already be a given.


Brian Schooley is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Jean Mayne

I would be a little careful jumping to conclusions about employees who use a lot of sick leave time. Rather than assuming people are simply ditching work because they don’t like the atmosphere, consider that they might be physically sick from the stress of a negative workplace. That doesn’t make them weak or lazy–it makes them desperate for you to help fix the situation. No matter how much meds or counseling they get, until the situation is fixed, they won’t be getting any better.

Also–accountability means giving credit where it’s due, not just holding feet to the fire. Many workplaces are depressing because no matter how hard someone works, they never get any recognition. No one sees how hard they work, so why bother?

Brian Schooley

Jean..thanks for the comments. Sick leave is an indicator in negative workplaces, and believe me, there was no slight targeted at those using sick leave. You are absolutely correct–these types of environments can be toxic, stressful, and often lead to that high sick leave usage. It’s important for leaders to pay attention to the indicators. There was no mention of anyone ditching work or being lazy and that was not my intent. As for accountability, I fully agree with your comments. In fact, that was a major point of one of my previous posts (“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way”) in which I mentioned accountability is also about recognizing and rewarding employees who are performing well. Again, thanks for the insights!