4 Sources of Negativity in the Workplace and How to Fight Them

Whether as an owner or an HR leader, anyone who’s led a business for any period of time has experienced one of the most painful parts of the job—workplace negativity. A certain amount of friction is absolutely to be expected in a business of any size, for the simple reason that we’re all unique. But what can you do to deal with and minimize its impact on your organization and its bottom line?

The key to dealing with negativity at work is to first recognize some of the underlying issues that cause it. Here are four of the most common causes, along with some practical ways to address them.

1. Communication Breakdown

This might seem like a no-brainer, but you can never put too much thought or effort into being intentional about communicating with employees. The people on your team are not your enemies—in many ways they’re your greatest allies and assets! So treat them that way by ensuring they are promptly and fully aware of everything they need to know about your business in order to do deliver great work.

If you have to err one way or the other, it’s far better to overshare than to undershare. To see why, think about your own experiences when leaders have hidden their actions or motives from you about business issues that affected your own work. It’s not a pleasant feeling is it? It’s guaranteed to give you a negative view of your employer, and that negativity will become widespread unless it’s counteracted by a big dose of clear communication.

2. Tolerance for Failure

One sure source of negativity in the workplace comes in when employees believe (rightly or wrongly) that there’s no consistent standard for job performance across the board. Granting that each employee must be dealt with on an individual basis and allowed to learn and grow, the fact remains that a healthy workplace requires clearly established and understood standards for work quality.

In situations where an employee is going through a tough personal issue or is just getting their bearings in a new position, having patience as they learn is wise and healthy. Find a diplomatic way to communicate that fact to any teammates who require it for their own daily performance.

But general tolerance for incompetence is different. When employees find that their leaders consistently overlook or excuse a lack of performance in any area of business, the employees will conclude that the company tolerates failure. That might sound harsh, but it’s a fair conclusion if a situation has gotten bad and stayed that way over time.

Once a tolerance for failure sets into an organization, a feeling of gloom and doom will quickly follow. The only way you can ensure this kind of negativity doesn’t infect your team is by working not only to deal kindly with employees who are learning the ropes but also to deal swiftly and confidently when incompetence appears. Sometimes it will mean a verbal correction; in more extreme cases it may mean dismissal. Either way, be sure your team knows how much excellent work matters in your workplace.

3. Unresolved Conflict

Sometimes you can walk into a lobby, an office or a meeting room and immediately sense from the people around you that something heavy and awful is happening between them. You might not be able to put your finger on it even after talking with them for a few minutes, but the feeling remains. Often this is a sign of unresolved conflict, one of the main causes of a negative workplace atmosphere.

When disagreements happen over business practices or how to proceed on a project, some people are great at resolving it quickly and without much fuss. But there are certain personalities who are allergic to conflict. If their unwillingness to confront the issue goes unresolved for long, a dangerous form of paralysis can set in that can cause a lot of negativity.

Unresolved conflict is usually a result of a lack of trust between two or more team members. This is where observant and shrewd leadership is essential. When you spot this kind of heavy atmosphere among employees, be sure to honor all parties involved while keeping in mind the differences of personality that are likely coming into play.

When everyone involved realizes that you, the leader, sincerely care to hear all sides, it will go a long way to relieving the heavy sense of dread and negativity. One person might never have been aware of the unresolved conflict, while another person might act as if their world is being rocked by the conversation. Either way, a kind and professional discussion of the issue is essential to prevent a deeper negativity from setting in.

4. Gossip

Virtually nothing does more to undermine your company’s wellness or mutual trust than gossip. In fact, gossip is practically a synonym for negativity. After all, positive comments and compliments about your business aren’t made in secret. No one tries to hide it when they’re pleased or overjoyed about how well something has gone at work.

But when employees gossip about a team member, their employer or the company in general, they are usually careful about who they spread their negative views with. And nothing encourages the growth of negativity faster than the emotional high of complaining in a small group about something you dislike.

Some people who might not otherwise notice or complain about a problem (real or imagined) will sometimes be drawn into negativity by a gossip. At times it’s contagious.

To fight gossip, invite employees to share negative situations and issues with those they report to. Dealing with the daily problems and issues of business comes with the territory of leadership, and there’s nothing wrong with an employee seeing and desiring to correct a problem. But communicate clearly that while sharing an issue with a leader is strongly encouraged, gossip is prohibited. You and all of your employees need to see how dangerous and destructive gossip is. You’ll never be able to eliminate it completely, but there’s no reason to overlook it if or when you discover it.

When your company is consistently watching for and stopping these sources of negativity in the workplace, the inevitable result will be a greater sense of unity and loyalty among your team.

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