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How to Deal With Negative People in the Workplace as a Supervisor

by Ralph Heibutzki

Negative employees drain company time, morale and resources. As a supervisor, your response to negative people should fit the frequency, nature and severity of the behavior. Most employees want to do the right thing, and are open to anything that gets them back on track. However, persistently argumentative, aggressive or rude behaviors are another matter. In some cases you might have to let the problem child go or risk eroding your organization's collective spirit and productivity.

Act Decisively

Negative behaviors don't often reveal themselves right away. Colleagues might want to avoid confrontation with a negative worker rather than confront him directly, or offer such rationalizations as, "That's just the way he is," organizational psychologist Dr. David G. Javitch notes in a May 2009 column for "Entrepreneur" magazine. However, if you start hearing complaints about the negative employee -- either from his co-workers or from customers or vendors -- you must act decisively to prevent the situation from escalating. Get more input, in private, from those who are concerned about the worker's negativity. Also, spend some time observing how the problem employee actually behaves.

Analyze the Situation

Before taking disciplinary measures, analyze the situation. For example, an employee who is undergoing severe emotional, financial or physical stress might act in ways that don't align with her normal behavior. In these cases, you want to get as much information as possible about why the employee has suddenly turned negative. Willful negativity -- someone who complains just for the sake of complaining, or who is trying to undermine the company -- is another matter. In either case, you will need to discuss the situation with the employee once you've figured out the relevant issues. Be patient and supportive, but firm. Take the time to listen to and absorb the employee's issues and concerns. You want to let her know that you are there to help, while also emphasizing that she is risking her job if her behavior doesn't change.

Direct the Conversation

At your meeting with the employee, allow him to blow off steam or mount whatever defense he wishes. Then direct the conversation back to your goal of changing his negative ways. Provide specific examples of his abrasive or negative behavior, followed by suggestions for improvement. Frame the situation as a mutual opportunity to solve the problem. To reinforce that notion, phrase your statements in collective terms by using "we" instead of "you," such as by saying, "we can resolve these issues by focusing on solutions to project challenges rather than the challenges themselves."

Provide Additional Support

Negative employees rarely improve without decisive intervention. This is especially true when the behavior results in poor work. In those situations, designate a co-worker to help get the negative employee back on track. Make someone available to help train the problem worker on specific tasks, or send the worker to outside training classes. Place her on probation for a specific period so you can determine if she's made sufficient progress.

Other Considerations

If the employee makes no progress -- or won't acknowledge that a problem exists -- termination might be the only realistic option. In most cases, that means one final round of documenting problematic behaviors, Javitch says. Once you have done this, you can either give the employee one final chance to address the situation, or let him go. Just be sure to properly document the process you undertook to improve his behavior and performance. This will help shield your company from potential grievances or legal claims.

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