Managing The Negative Team Member

Andrew Weaver
May 5, 2023

It’s a remarkable human foible that we can spot the 1 negative person in 100 smiling faces. 

Anyone who has performed on stage or delivered a presentation will recognise the sensation of spotting that face in the crowd who looks far from impressed or engaged with what you’re saying.

It’s the same in a business environment and particularly during this Zoom era where you immediately spot the individual with the negative body language, lack of engagement, constant fidgeting. 

I recently presented to 80 people and just one individual caught my eye and cast doubt in my mind, as he performed every negative body movement known to man.

It’s no different when presenting to a team where the negative body language of an individual can have an impact on how you perform and deflect a significant proportion of your energy and focus away from other positive responses. 

But it’s also a potential signal of a deeper and more destructive presence in your team with an individual who has nothing positive to say, irritates colleagues, and makes the working environment difficult for everyone.

How do you respond to this behavior? 

What feedback should you be giving? 

How do you mitigate the damage someone like this can inflict?
How do you differentiate between someone just being awkward or downright toxic?

And there is a clear difference between the two because the toxic individual is likely to be spreading that negativity around the team and organisation as “There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates,” says Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace

Hopefully you can spot someone with a toxic attitude before you hire them but attitudes can change and for lots of reasons they might have recently become a nuisance, started rejecting good ideas, putting down bad ones, generally pushing back against everything and everyone.

You might have inherited them when taking on the job and their attitude has been entrenched within the team dynamic for some time. 

The nuclear option is of course to fire them and rid yourself of the problem as soon as possible. Some people just can’t be changed.

Whilst the firing option might be superficially attractive you clearly need to explore more positive responses both in terms of the individual involved but also what signals your response will be giving other members of the team. 

Here are some steps you might want to consider when handling the negative team member

It’s Your Job To Find Out More

You need to take a closer look at the behavior and try to understand what might be causing it.

What is the source of their unhappiness?

Nobody wants to spend their days at work being miserable and it’s your job as their manager to show sufficient empathy and understanding about what else might be impacting them at work.

Struggles outside of work?
Frustrated with colleagues or with a lack of opportunity?

Can you meet with them privately and explore the real issues behind the negativity? Can you offer them coaching or even counselling, if the issues are more deep seated.

Manage people with compassion and you will generally get to the bottom of the issue and you could turn a toxic colleague into a deeply loyal one.

Double Check It’s Not You

You need to check your own biases first and understand if your managerial style and decision making is playing any role in their behaviour, particularly if their behaviour has changed whilst working with you and your team.
Could you be the cause of their discontent?

“A lot of times people will say someone’s negative, but my first question is, “So what does that mean?” – Stacey Gordon, Career Coach at The Muse, “It could be that they’re behaving in a certain way that you may not approve of, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a destructive or bad employee. It just means that you haven’t properly defined standards with your team”

You also need to reflect on how you react to their behaviour and that you’re not making a bad problem worse. 

We’ve all been there as managers as a combination of exasperation and stress leads to us becoming negative in response.  

Time For Some Constructive Criticism?

Often they might be unaware of their impact on others or even the negative bubble they’ve got themselves into, particularly if the source of their troubles are external.

Delivering feedback is always challenging, particularly with difficult team members, so make sure it’s very specific about the issues that concern you.

You need to be able to deliver direct and honest feedback, within the framework of trying to help them, as well as you and your colleagues.

Situations like this are why it’s crucial to build a culture of trust and communication within your team, where critical conversations are handled skillfully and can take place without making a bad situation worse.

Don’t go hard with the negative, try to address this from a personal development perspective of understanding any issues and creating a measurable and clearly defined plan for them to engage again. 

Talk Them Through The Impact

Obviously there can be situations where they are totally unresponsive to any gestures of empathy and constructive feedback.

You might need to alert them to what they could lose if this behaviour continues, this is not just about the immediate impact on their state of mind and team culture, but short term misbehaviour can have long term consequences and it’s the potential losses that sometimes stimulate changes in behaviour.

What really matters to them now, or in the past?
What could they be losing if they continue like this?

Regularly Check-In

If you can move forward positively then it’s important to maintain open channels of communication and for this not to be a one-off, short term fire fighting exercise.

It’s a huge drain on your time and distraction for the team to deal with these situations so you need to be clear about an ongoing programme of support that includes regular check-ins and time set aside to measure progress.

Where Necessary, Take Action

Alas there are limits to what you can offer and how much you can spend trying to manage this individual into a more positive space and not everyone will be capable or willing to change.

Research indicates that a small minority of people actually enjoy the power and disruption this kind of behaviour can bring.

If you have tried to help but they’re unwilling to change, act swiftly because every day their toxicity leaks into the team, is a day of diminished harmony, performance and potential loss of your star performers.

Who wants to spend their working day with Mr Grumpy?

Prepare For The Worst, Record Everything

If you do act swiftly and in particular if you decide to fire this individual, make sure you have recorded everything.

Most employment tribunal cases here in the UK are not lost because of the managerial decision made by the company, they are lost because the managers failed to follow the correct process.

If the relationship has moved into awkward mode then you need to be documenting clearly what has taken place and what steps you took to help.

You need to understand clearly your firing procedure and the employment legislation in your jurisdiction, to ensure you follow the correct process. This should be mapped out in a company manual and if not, add it now.

You need to establish a pattern of behaviour, the steps you too to address it and a detailed note of meetings, conversations, formal complaints that took place with this individual.

Protect yourself and your company against the risk of future litigation.

Start To Remove The Toxicity

In the meantime if they fail to change but have to remain, try to create space between them and the rest of your team. People having to work closely with a toxic team member are more likely to develop negative working habits also, either because of it or as a defensive mechanism against it.

You might need to create physical space or re-allocate them to different projects.

With the current WFH situations, it’s physically easier to create that space and reduce the number of clashes between this individual and team members, minimising the cognitive loss as a result.

Potentially other team members require help and coaching in how they can manage this individual, you certainly don’t want them getting a sense your time is being overly absorbed with managing the negativity.

Don’t Let Them Pull You In

Which leads me to conclude with the simple point that you have to manage yourself and your own time through these situations.

It’s very easy to be drawn into their negative orbit and be distracted from what else matters and your own peace of mind.

I return back to that moment on stage when you spot the individual with folded arms, focus instead on the vast majority of the audience who are wildly applauding and supportive.

Surround yourself with positive people, energy and situations that give you a positive charge – exercise, great food, good sleep. Staying healthy and proactive is crucial for your state of mind and you never know, might inspire that toxic colleague to step up or step out.

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