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Overcoming workplace negativity

March 1, 2009
by Betty MacLaughlin Frandsen, RN, NHA, BSHCA, CDONA/LTC
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Just as we routinely perform assessments to identify risk factors and early problems in residents' health, we must make a conscious effort to apply screening principles to ensure the health of the workplace under our leadership. When an environmental assessment reveals risk factors or symptoms of dysfunction or dissatisfaction, we should act just as swiftly as if a physical illness was sweeping through our facility in order to restore optimal workplace health.

Like a virus

Negativity is a pattern of pessimistic thinking that spreads like a virus, causing morale problems and ultimately impacting our organization's success. Symptoms include loss of employee motivation, loyalty, creativity, and innovation. Outcomes of negativity include increased errors, decreased quality, increased interpersonal conflicts, increased tardiness or absence, and increased turnover. In his book, Managing Workplace Negativity,1 Gary Topchik describes the primary roots of negativity that lead to problems in an organization:

  • Lack or loss of competence when employees are unable to meet the needs of their work environment, possibly due to insufficient orientation or training, or a loss of self-confidence when they think they cannot perform as well as others.

  • Lack or loss of a sense of community when workers are required to float rather than having regular assignments where familiarity and a comfort level develop.

  • Lack or loss of control that comes from a feeling of powerlessness from not being part of the decision-making process that affects one's work.

  • Lack of stability or loss of familiar guidelines through constant change at work that makes staff question our competence as leaders.

Employees' perceptions are influenced by their employment experiences, by the value system that permeates their work setting, by the opinions of coworkers they value, and by their own level of self-confidence, self-esteem, and competence. Negativity is a habit that may become the person's normal way of acting and thinking, or may only become evident when the person is stressed. Evidence of negativity can be identified by a nurse leader through observation of nonverbal communication, such as the presence of frowns, lack of eye contact, crossed arms, or the way a person sits, stands, or walks. People constantly communicate without saying a word by their posture and acknowledgment or lack of acknowledgment of others. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, and reported in the article “Positive Non-Verbal Communication,” 2 in face-to-face interactions with others, 55% of our message is interpreted by how we look and 38% by how we say it, such as tone, volume, and pitch. Only 7% of a receiver's understanding comes from the actual words said. Volume, emphasis on words, voice tone, facial gestures, and body movements can completely change a receiver's understanding of a message.

Manage own reaction

Remember that underlying the negativity is a need or interest that causes the person to act as he or she does. Frequently, communication gaps have caused the person to misunderstand situations, and to act out of fear or distrust. Before you can help the negative person deal with their issues, you must manage your own reaction to their negative behavior. Topchik advises leaders to keep the following points in mind to deal with their own emotions before beginning to work on helping the other person deal with his or hers:

  • Remind yourself not to take the other person's behavior personally.

  • If the difficult person reminds you of someone else who “gets to you,” separate them in your mind.

  • Draw on your communication and listening skills to let the negative person release emotion when you meet with him.

  • While you are trying to see things from the other person's point of view, avoid picking up his or her negativity. You are helping them work through their problem, but it is not your problem. Determine not to pick up an individual's bad habits such as hostility, depression, aggression, or pessimism while listening to them.

What do you do when you have tried these supportive steps and the individual remains as negative as ever? Topchik says this is the point where you must hold the employee accountable for his or her negative actions. Keep the focus on the individual's behavior and not on them as a person. Identify specific facts, including examples of negative behavior and its impact. Give the employee time to respond, and include the opportunity to present any legitimate reasons for the behavior of which you were not aware. Make it clear that you are trying to help the employee change the specific behavior, and not to attack them personally. Explain alternate positive actions or behaviors you would like to see, and point out the consequences if those actions or behaviors are not achieved and the positive outcomes if they are. Ask the employee to offer his or her own suggestions for improvement and guide him or her to come up with a realistic plan. Make sure that the employee understands that failure to follow the agreed-upon action plan will result in initiation of the disciplinary process as defined in your personnel policies. Monitor behavior and give positive feedback to acknowledge improvement, or follow the disciplinary process if there is no change for the better. Failure to address a person's negativity in a timely manner increases dissatisfaction of other staff members.

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