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How Can I Leverage the Value of a Negative Employee?

Tim Williams's Profile

I read an interesting post on LinkedIn on the value of negative employees. In many cases those who are "negative" are that way because they care and have passion. Those are traits you can't teach. How do I harness the passion and strong level of commitment of someone who is negative at times? I do believe that in order to move forward there needs to be friction, but how can I keep a negative employee from starting fires?


Topic Expert
Scott MacDonald
Title: President/Owner
Company: AlphaMac Resources, Inc.
(President/Owner, AlphaMac Resources, Inc.) |

The employee needs to know how they are perceived. I have found that many times these types of employees lack the ability to see themselves as others see them. You should be coaching them to make their "observations" in a more positive manner.

You also need to coach the other employees to see the value of the observations made by this employee and coach them as to how to take the comments. If you show that you value the opinions of this employee, that will go a long way to helping others take their sometimes negative attitude.

In the end, though your goal is to coach the person to present their ideas in a positive manner.

Topic Expert
Scott MacDonald
Title: President/Owner
Company: AlphaMac Resources, Inc.
(President/Owner, AlphaMac Resources, Inc.) |

I would add that sometimes it is a simple as teaching the negative employee to express themselves with "positive" words and voice tones, along with some instruction on body language and facial expressions. So here is how I would approach the person.

"You have brought up some interesting points, but I need to talk to you about how to deliver those thoughts in a more positive way which will help you solicit support for your positions."

Hopefully that will start the conversation in a positive way.

Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

Tim, I sometimes play this part (the devil's advocate). Sometimes, I play this part even if I agree with the CEO/Board just for the sake of the exercise. The difference is, the CEO/Board and I know and understand that I am playing this part and this role is an important part of the thought process/deliberation.

My advice is.... If the person expresses "negativity", ask that person why he/she thinks that. Press her/him to express and reason out her.his "thinking" (note I did NOT say "negativity") Example....if she says "That will never happen", ask him/her why he/she thinks why it will not happen. You can channel the "negativity" in a way that he/she challenges the conventional (popular) thinking in the group.

Hopefully, he/she is not a GLUM (if you who are old enough to remember the character in Gulliver's Travels...."We'll never make it!") or the SNL favorite Debbie Downer.

Sara Voight
Title: Controller
Company: Critical Signal Technologies, Inc
(Controller, Critical Signal Technologies, Inc) |

I was this way at one time. I was caught by surprise when my boss sat me down and asked why I was so down on the company. Ultimately, she guided me to recognizing that my approach was all that was remembered by the people I was communicating with, not the goal of getting people to look at all angles and consider some of the 'what-if's. Instead, I was a negative Nancy only looking at what was wrong or why something would never work. My boss and I worked together to improve my approach and the result was immediate. One on one communication goes a long way for people who want to grow. If a conversation does not help, then you might consider a new person for the position.

Len Green
Title: Performance Improvement Consultant and E..
Company: Haygarth Consulting LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Performance Improvement Consultant and ERP Strategist, Haygarth Consulting LLC) |

I think that your chances of helping this person change their communication style would increase if you start off by commending him/her for their above-normal level of passion and commitment.

I disagree with the "expectation of friction," that so often causes people to hold back from making the right decision. Building off of their passion, talk to this employee about considering how others may feel (e.g. inferior, not welcome) and then, as Sara described so well above, explore ways to channel that drive positively in future interactions.

Robert Meybohm
Title: Owner
Company: Meybohm & Bodell, LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Owner, Meybohm & Bodell, LLC) |

I will take a bit of a counter-intuitive approach and indicate that a negative employee may be serving as a canary in the coal mine; that is warning about a bigger problem. Don't just assume that the problem is with the employee; it might be the manager of that employee or some other issue. Dig a bit until you find the "gas" causing the perceived negativity. It very well may be that there is a good reason that is a bigger problem.

Wayne Pilkinton
Title: CFO
Company: Cold Train, LC
(CFO, Cold Train, LC) |

Attempt to make that person part of the solution. Identify why they are negative and then, if appropriate, have them as part of a team or as a leader of a team that will seek resolution of the "problems". It may be that as that person deals with the details they determine that all is not doom and gloom. It is also a possibility that if that person identifies "why things never get done" they can be a motivator in that area. Finally it may be that this is how the person usually presents their ideas, and that they need to be asked to seek a more positive manner of input.

Topic Expert
Christie Jahn
Title: CFO
Company: Prime Investments & Development
(CFO, Prime Investments & Development) |

Interesting discussion. In my experience negativity can be a cancer to the person and the team. Positive energy typically inspires and cultivates more positive energy. I love what Emerson mentions regarding playing "devils advocate" but I do not view that as negative behavior either. I would have to agree with the comments that speak to trying to coach the person though it. Get to the root cause of the negativity and there is normally a reason behind it. Read the Energy Bus.

Lyle Newkirk
Title: CFO
Company: Corrigo Incorporated
(CFO, Corrigo Incorporated) |

To be fair, I would have a blunt heart to heart with that person and let them know that their behavior was causing a lot of problems and that it may cost them their job. After that, if the negative behavior continues I would try to get rid of that person. It only takes one negative person to drag down lots of good ones.

LinkedIn Profile

I have not read the LinkedIn article, but I agree with Christie and Lyle. Generally the negative person becomes a cancer and impacts the overall 'mood' of the department. Negativity must be addressed as soon as possible.

Mark Matheny
Title: VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis
Company: Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)
(VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis, Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)) |

I would suggest having a good discussion with the employee. If the negativism is more than just taking the opposite side of an argument to spur discussion, it is probably an issue. I do think you have to be careful. You can also have too much optimism. It is good to have that person in the room to balance that and bring everyone closer to middle ground.

(Agent) |

There are 2 kinds of "negative" employees. One group is truly negative, for whatever reason, they have a bad attitude. The other "negative" group is really the cautious group, the ones that don't "drink the Kool Aid" and cheer the lemmings over the cliff. The real issue is that the so called "positive" employees want to steamroll over anyone in their path and labeling critics as "negative" serves that purpose by making them outcasts. Ironic that the Boy Scout's motto of "be prepared" turns into a bad thing if not communicated properly to the "positive" group. It's not just the "negatives" that need counseling. (I'm sure by this post you can guess which side of the spectrum I'm on.)

Mary Boettcher
Title: HR/HRIS Specialist
Company: Marion County, Oregon
(HR/HRIS Specialist, Marion County, Oregon) |

I think the key here is that you (Tim) said the employee in question is negative "at times". You did not say always or frequently or some other term that would indicate the person is this way on a regular basis. Also, you must think that the employee adds value and is a productive employee otherwise or you would not be asking how to hone this side of the employee into a positive. You would probably just fire the person and get someone else to do the job. Therefore, I agree with Scott, Sara and Wayne and you should find a way to coach this person into changing the way they express the "negative" viewpoint so it can be perceived as a constructive, valuable and insightful approach to the topic at hand.

(Associate) |

I tend to agree more with the camp that suggest identifying the root of the negativity. I have had employees much like what is described. The passion shown for the company was undeniable, but that passion often manifested itself as rudeness, negativity, and orneryness. What I found out on one such employee was that the person's department was behind on initiatives. Whenver something new came along, the negativity surfaced because it was just one more thing getting in the way. Work on solving the root, and I bet the negativity will decrease.

Gennady Shenker
Title: President
Company: GDS Solutions
(President, GDS Solutions) |

Tim, I've thought about this issue for a long time and will respond soon. But first, could you please provide a link to the article.

(Executive Vice President) |

Perhaps first you might consider the company's "culture". Read Roger Connors's books, beginning with "The Oz Principle", to better understand the negative employee's possible motivations. Following the Accountability program laid out in his books, especially in "How Did That Happen?", can help you turn all your staff into positive, productive employees who can work miracles for your business's profitability -- and then you'll know if that negative one is truly unsalvageable.


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