People who tend to negativity and find fault often with others are sometimes unaware of how they may be creating or contributing to the problems they complain about. They may feel a sense of control in pointing out what is wrong as if it is the responsibility of others to solve all problems or conflicts. That behaviour is likely feeding an unmet need to control their environment and distance themselves from situations where they feel they have little control.
In workplace cultures that function effectively it is fine to report an issue. It is important to note that the leaders in these organizations require that to do so the person bringing the issue must also bring a viable solution. This is an additional opportunity for managers to coach employees to look at solutions rather than problems and to learn to seek information that supports their solutions, both of which are valuable skills.
When a complaint or problem focussed discussion starts, redirect everyone involved toward a solution. If needed take a break, while establishing that the discussion will resume when everyone is able to stay focussed on a solution. Negativity, frequent complaining, and criticizing are not productive nor should it be tolerated. This behaviour has a tendency to ‘creep’ outward and affects others in non-productive ways creating needless stress.
These questions help redirect discussions that get off track:
- What are you really committed to doing [to solve this problem, to achieve this goal etc.]?
- What has to be true for success to happen?
- What outcome do you want to see? Why?
- What do you need to move forward?
- What are you missing?
- What do you expect of me?
- What other ideas do you have that might help?
- What input have you gathered from others that might help?
Listen, Ask, Listen
Understanding how a person is motivated, how their personality style affects their information processing and how their emotional intelligence drives behaviour, provides a leader with guidance to influence more positive behaviour. Leaders get busy and may lose touch with what is driving behaviour in their workplace. When a client is telling me the story that relates to the topic they want to discuss I always ask them some form of ‘what the individuals involved would tell me about the situation’ and it isn’t unusual for the hesitation, then, the acknowledgement “I am not really sure” to follow the question. This is a signal that it is time to spend more time listening, asking and listening some more.
Leaders are both role models and guides to acceptable behaviour in the workplace, the more you understand what drives behaviour, your own and others, the more adept you will be at increasing productive and positive behaviour.
Many leaders I have worked with report that having to have problem behaviour discussions or to let an employee go is a very difficult decision to act on and thus delay taking this step. My own experience in this situation means I can relate to that, yet that same experience reminds me that there is a significant cost that grows exponentially, to delaying taking action. Ask yourself what the cost of the situation continuing is to the business, to the employee, to other employees, to customers and to yourself. Delaying acting on such situations results in having to deal with a much bigger and messier problem later on. Accept that acting on such a decision will always be difficult and remind yourself of the cost of not acting on it.
Use Emotional Self-Awareness
The MHS EQ-i 2.0 defines emotional self-awareness in this way: includes recognizing and understanding one’s own emotions. This includes the ability to differentiate between subtleties in one’s own emotions while understanding the cause of these emotions and the impact they have on one’s own thoughts and actions and those of others.
Leaders need to pay attention to their own emotional state. Be aware of your own triggers and be aware of a pattern of behaviour with the person complaining. When a negative pattern has already been established the leader must first communicate the change-that discussions going forward must be solution focussed and stay on track.
Develop Emotional Intelligence
It is counter-productive to simply utilize managerial skills without well-developed emotional intelligence skills. Cognitive, social and emotional intelligence skill development are all necessary components of effective leadership. The ability to see any workplace situation through the perspective of others and to step outside ones own reactions aids in reaching better solutions. Learning to respond [objective, solution focussed] to situations rather than reacting [firefighting] allows leaders to create positive and productive workplace environments. Removing negativity and problem focussed criticism reduces stress and negativity creep.
Make Culture Count
Strong, sustainable and productive organizations deliberately create a culture that is defined by a clear set of values. Values drive decisions, create organizational culture and reduce uncertainty. Leaders must deal with a negative employee quickly or other employees may view them as condoning bad behaviour or as a lack of respect for the employees who find themselves subjected to this behaviour. How employees and customers view the business is significantly influenced by the behaviours that are condoned, supported or allowed to continue unchecked. To retain the culture that created and maintains the success of the organization dealing in a timely and effective manner with negative behaviour is critical. A cohesive understanding of the values and culture throughout the organization, regardless of size, also helps in times of change, especially during growth periods, to reduce uncertainty. If you are experiencing negativity, angry outbursts and hyper-criticism in your organization, changing this will not happen overnight. Patience, commitment and determination are required to shift the behaviour to a more positive approach which also means the leader needs to keep their own emotional well-being intact.