Working with naysayers

Anybody who’s been a manager for a while has encountered naysayers in the workplace. How do you deal with employees who seem to have negative attitudes about every decision you and your teams make? Here’s some expert advice:

– Are you part of the problem? Sometimes, employees adopt a negative attitude because they feel managers and other higher-ups haven’t kept them informed or involved, or that the employees’ input and valid concerns aren’t really taken seriously. It takes time to rebuild trust; it’s easier to keep it from being lost in the first place.

When in doubt, communicate too much, rather than too little, with your team members; let them decide what they “need to know” about both routine and extraordinary developments in the workplace. And this works both ways; take the time to listen to your people, even if their ideas won’t work or their concerns aren’t valid. It’s quicker and easier to listen up front than to resolve conflicts at the back end.

And, of course, if your attitude is also negative — because you’re under stress or insecure about the future — you’ll see that reflected by your people. So make sure you’re modeling the behavior you want to see.

– Negative by design. For other employees, negativity is a tactic — being a naysayer brings rewards. They can guilt-trip supervisors into backing away from decisions that really need to be made, and managers end up accommodating the negativity even when they don’t want to.

Remember that you can’t really manage “attitude”; some people are just negative by nature. (If you’ve noticed a dramatic and abrupt change in the attitude of an employee, that’s worth monitoring; perhaps a referral to an employee-assistance program is in order, or perhaps there’s a team conflict you need to resolve.) But you can manage this kind of manipulative behavior — and it’s your job to do so.

Managers often worry that one rotten apple will spoil the whole barrel — that a relentlessly negative employee will drag down the entire team’s morale. Surely, this happens sometimes. But so does the reverse; other team members get tired of the naysayer and apply peer pressure to isolate him or her. Remember to praise and reinforce the positive behavior of other team members, rather than devoting all your time and energy to turning naysayers around.

– How to communicate. Explain changes that need to be made, clearly and concisely. Let employees “talk back” without responding; don’t get defensive or sarcastic or cut them off. By making clear (ideally, in front of the whole team) that you’ve invited and listened to their negative reactions, you’ve already done a lot to avert future problems. But don’t let them ramble, either. Some of the objections negative employees raise may be valid ones that you hadn’t considered. Even if you think the changes still need to be made, make a commitment that the employees’ concerns will be addressed, and when, and how. Many times, you have, in fact, considered the issues raised by the team, so send that message. Tell employees what needs to be done to make the plan work — both by you and by them.

And don’t finish the conversation without a direct agreement from your employees to do what they can to help. For many naysayers, “That will never work” means, “I’m not going to be responsible.” Don’t let them off the hook; insist on a commitment to change. If you tell people what they have to do and then walk away, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t get done.