Dealing With the Scourge of Workplace Negativity

I love free food at work. I don’t even have to particularly like the food being served. If it’s free, I’m happy.

Not everyone shares this positivity.

Every single place I’ve ever worked has nestled in its bosom at least one person who is negative no matter what the company does.

“Let’s honor our company’s top employee of the quarter!”

“Of course they’d pick her.”

“Here’s a pound of gold!”

“Why isn’t it platinum?”

“Here’s some free food!” …

We recently completed something called Hospital Days, a week to recognize the awesomeness of people who work in medical facilities. Our local team put together an amazing five days featuring, among other things, food vendors every day. You might think everyone would be giddy or, at least, appreciative.

If you think that, you probably haven’t recently worked in the modern American workplace.

Among the actual complaints I heard about Hospital Days:

  1. The line to get food was too long.
  2. The selection wasn’t wide enough.
  3. On one of the five days you actually had to pay for the special.
  4. The snack cart didn’t have a good variety.
  5. They should just cancel this whole thing, divide up what they would spend and give us a check.

Workplace negativity sucks. And it’s kind of like COVID. What spews from your mouth spreads and infects the people around you. Time and again, I’ve witnessed normally positive, productive employees happily skip down a dark path of complaining and gossip thanks to one person’s daily stream of whines.

Four Ways to Beat Back Workplace Negativity

Here’s the thing about negativity in general and workplace negativity specifically: It can change an entire culture if it’s not effectively addressed. When the infection spreads, a culture of positivity — or, at least, benign neutrality — becomes a collection of sullen people who are less effective at fulfilling the mission of the business, whether that’s treating children with orthopedic conditions or producing the best widgets in the world.

Now, this isn’t to say anyone is or should be universally positive. We all have tough days and can benefit from the occasional venting session. All of us also bring our personal baggage into the workplace. Whether it’s trouble with a child, financial concerns or health issues, no one truly lays down their stinky garbage at the door to pick it up again when they leave.

That said, there’s a huge gap between venting or garbage and descending to the point where you’re complaining about free food.

We all have an individual responsibility for what we put out into the world. If you look around your workplace and think the culture sucks, what can you do to change it? I am blessed to be in charge of our employee eNewsletter and have been granted the freedom to have fun with it. I’m able to put in there things about employee culture. I’m able to celebrate our accomplishments. I can make people laugh. I take very seriously my position as a de facto cheerleader. But you don’t need that to make a difference. Here are four things you can do:

1. Keep Your Mouth Closed

If you’re tempted to complain or gossip, just don’t. Go for a walk, write it down and then throw it away, go sit in your car and scream, text an outside-of-work friend. Do whatever works for you. Just don’t contribute to what you know is harmful.

2. Strategically Respond to Whiners and Gossipers

It is really fun to insert into yet another group complaining session: “Daaaaang, people. Why is it you choose to stay here again?” At the very least, the complaining may stop around you. At best, maybe you help someone make a better career choice.

3. Stick Up for People

The worst kind of workplace negativity is Mean Girl sniping about colleagues. (And, yes, men are a part of this too.) I’ve heard it all… everything from making fun of someone’s accent to comments about the quality of another’s clothes. It’s nasty. It’s ugly. And you should stick up for your co-workers. In general, I’m not a big fan of Human Resources, and they truly aren’t necessary in these situations. Try something else first: Call out your colleagues for their lack of professionalism and blatant immaturity. Let them know you don’t want to hear that kind of crap. Then go about doing your job and setting a good example.

4. Commit Random Acts of Anonymous Kindness

Buy five $1 scratch-off lottery tickets, put them in individual envelopes with a positive note and leave them in random places around the building or under car windshield wipers for people to find. On a snowy day, scrape some windshields before quitting time. Leave doughnuts in the breakroom. There are endless possibilities and it doesn’t matter if you get the credit. Just do something and bask in the positive vibes. As we’ve talked about previously, you don’t need a manager title to be a leader, and you don’t need to be appointed to some committee to spread goodness.

Management is Ultimately Responsible

It bears mentioning that if it’s more than one or two negative employees, if, in fact, a negative workplace culture exists, management needs to wake up fast. Not only is what they’re allowing to exist making people miserable but this kind of stuff diverts attention from productivity and profitability. For the good of the business, it needs to be addressed.

There is no excuse to not know a negative culture exists. Human Resources should be conducting exit interviews, and management should not dismiss them as the complaints of disgruntled soon-to-be former employees. Management also should regularly be giving employees truly anonymous pressure-release valves where they can get things off their chest and then pay attention to the themes of what’s being said. Performance appraisals should include feedback on each employee from all levels so trends and pain points (and pain people) can be identified and addressed.

If you’re a leader in a company beset by a negative culture, you are responsible for fixing it. Managing up or managing out your constant grumblers is a good first step. But the best thing you can do is to create an environment in which negativity cannot blossom.

The key to that is transparency. The more secretive you are, the more rumors and gossip will flow. The less you reveal what’s really going on in the business, the more employees will create their own narratives from the snippets you release or they pick up from others.

Negativity flourishes when people don’t feel like they have a say in what’s going on and are scared about the future. Wise leaders craft a culture in which employees know where they stand as individuals and within the team, are clear on how the business is truly performing, can see a vision for the future and are empowered to use their talents without unnecessary interference to help the company get there.

The absence of any one of those things is a failure on management’s part and will — not may — result in workplace negativity.

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