Nipping negativity in the bud

The proverbial “one bad apple” receives bad press, for good reason. A lone member who harbours negativity can disrupt the functioning of an otherwise cohesive team in more ways than one. As human beings have a propensity to remember bad news over more positive tidings, the negativity of one person can be contagious. From petty bickering to gossip to malicious rumours, negativity within an organization is not only toxic but can also balloon. So, before it gets too vicious or too late, it’s prudent to curb negativity early on. 

In a blog post of Harvard Business School, Amit Goldenberg likens employee negativity to wildfire; an individual’s quibbles can morph into “collective distress” if left unchecked. Because emotions in a group setting often get ‘amplified,’ the consequences of negativity clouding the workspace can be severe, resulting in poor decision-making. Writer Kat Boogaard points out in a blog post of Wrike, that workplace negativity diminishes productivity, increases “emotional exhaustion” and can lead to higher employee turnover. 

Goldenberg argues that people tend to exaggerate their emotions in the presence of an audience, which, in turn, causes the observers to experience “intense emotions.” So, besides dealing with the emotions of individuals, managers also have to gauge the collective mood. Boogaard offers the following red flags that may signal that negativity is stewing within a team. When you notice that employees are griping more often, less engaged and enthusiastic, reluctant to take on responsibilities, tending to pass on the blame to others, it’s time for a mood check. Don’t disregard eye rolls or an unwillingness to make eye contact during meetings. Observe whether the entire team exudes negativity or only a few members. 

If it’s just a few bad apples, then set up private meetings with each one, suggests Boogaard. Then share your observations being as objective as possible. Avoid judgmental language and provide concrete examples when the employee exuded negativity. Give the person a chance to explain why they might have behaved offensively. Try to understand the root cause of their behaviour. Are they feeling overwhelmed or frustrated or excluded? You may then point out how their negativity is impacting others and provide suggestions on how the person can alter their behaviour. 

If negativity is not limited to just a few individuals, then Goldenberg has the following recommendations. Just as counsellors advise us to reframe our negative appraisals to more benign ones, reappraisal, as a strategy, can be deployed to soothe collective angst as well. Suppose an entire team is worked up about servicing a client known to be difficult, bosses need not counsel every member of a team individually. Instead, they can “broadcast information” to allay the team’s anxieties.  

Goldenberg provides two reappraisal strategies. The first, repurposing, involves putting a positive spin on the source of people’s insecurities. For example, the boss might let the team know that servicing this ‘difficult’ client will help them refine their processes to perfection. The second strategy, repurposing, helps people look at the broader picture. When servicing umpteen clients, the boss may advise the team, we can expect a handful to be more demanding. However, the extra pressure we may feel, in the moment, should not detract us from focusing on quality and reliability, two steadfast pillars of our servicing policy. According to Goldenberg, reappraisals, done right, also spread through the group and can become “part of the narrative” and culture of an organization. 

Boogaard also suggests creating a more positive culture within organizations. Scheduling fun activities where people get to unwind and let down their defenses may promote bonding between employees. The boss also has to model an optimistic orientation, knowing how to differentiate complaints from constructive criticism. Make sure you’re not the bad apple that’s constantly grumbling or holding grouses. Most importantly, don’t ignore negativity at work, assuming it will pass. Instead, take proactive steps to nip it in the bud. 

About the Author

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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