How can I manage my negative (Debbie Downer) employee?
Don’t worry. I get asked this question loads by business owners. And that’s a brilliant thing – because it shows a genuine appetite to try and get the best from an employee – rather than letting things fester.
‘Debbie Downers’, ‘Prophets of Doom’, and ‘Mood Hoovers’. They’re all nicknames we use for negative types, right? But these flippant labels can sometimes disguise the true scale of the problem for heaps of people managers out there – trying their damn hardest to motivate a negative worker – and often dealing with the ramifications of failing miserably.
The dictionary says a negative person is someone who doesn’t expect good things to happen, or is likely to only consider the bad side of a situation. So, at work, they might say stuff like: “There’s no point in doing this” or “We won’t win that contract” or “They never get back to me” or “We’ll never meet those timescales.” Their negativity can also manifest in how they say their words AND through non-verbal communication.
Everybody can be grumpy some of the time. But a persistently negative employee can affect life at work for everyone, and stop you from delighting your customers 😁According to PositivePyschology.com, negative thinkers don’t tend to take risks either – which is something that might stifle innovation at your place.
PRACTICAL THINGS YOU CAN DO
Assuming you can’t immediately put your finger on the root cause of the negativity, here are few questions to ask yourself, and some tips to help you confront the problem.
Go on, be brave!
1. Are you taking note?
Before facing the inevitable – in other words, the “chat” you’re eventually going to have to have with your employee – you need to collect some evidence.
Jot down when you see or hear them being negative. Oh yeah, and note the impact it’s had too. For example, your employee might have been really negative in a meeting – and it ended up causing a totally unhelpful debate – where everybody is left feeling a bit rubbish.
It’s smart to have a few examples in your armoury for when you eventually confront the issue. Otherwise, you could end up generalising and exaggerating the problem to make your point.
But, don’t rock up with an endless list. This will make your employee feel like they’ve been under constant surveillance!
2. Okay, so could it be it you?
Awkward! Yes, it’s an uncomfortable question, but one that you’ve gotta ask yourself.
Sometimes, your words and actions can unintentionally provoke a bit of negativity from your people. For example, do you use dourness to befriend the people who work for you? Remember, your job is to rouse motivation, not reinforce gloominess.
It might be that you have an unconscious bias that’s surfacing at work and affecting your employees. This isn’t your fault, but you need to be aware of it. Put simply, it’s where your worldly life experiences shape who you like, and who you don’t. For example, you might treat one employee differently to another, just because you’re both fans of the same music.
Also, do you think you’ve got a parent-child thing going on at work? This is where you do all the thinking and your employees simply follow your orders. This management style can strangle creativity and lead to bitterness and resentment. After all, as Dr Carol S. Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ says: the days when managers simply need “…little helpers to carry out their brilliant ideas…” are over!
3. Is there a mental health issue?
Sit-up now, this is really important.
Continuous negative thinking, and always expecting the worst – are often associated with mental health issues – like anxiety.
According to NHS England, one in four adults experience a mental illness. That’s why you might need to brush up on your mental health knowledge – before speaking to your employee.
There’s a truckload of material available online, including useful information from the Health and Safety Executive.
4. So, are you ready to talk?
Having collected some evidence, looked in the mirror, and perused important mental health resources – it’s time to tackle the problem with a chat.
Informally, it’s worth mentioning to your employee in advance – that you’re going to do this – so it’s not a complete surprise. You could say something like: “I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit negative at work recently. I’m going to set up some time for us to chat about it. Is that okay?”
Put some time in both of your diaries and go to a place where you’re not gonna be disturbed.
When the time comes, here are a few tips to help frame the conversation, inspired by an awesome Acas guide on honest conversations: 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼
- Explain the reasons for your chat 💬
- Be super specific by giving some solid examples 📝
- Be crystal clear about how those examples are affecting the business 📉
- Ask some nice, open questions to give your employee the chance to tell you what’s going on ❓
- Make sure you listen carefully. Don’t interrupt. Don’t judge 👂🏼
- Ask if they have any ideas on how to fix things 💡
- Decide what to – after all, you’re the boss, so take accountability. Make sure you both have actions 🤔
- Check you’re both sure what’s gonna happen next – and what your expectations are 👍🏼
- Sort a date to speak again 📆
- Jot down everything that was said 📝
5. Do you REALLY know each other?
Learning more about your employees can really help to smooth the way – especially with negative staff.
In my book, Hiring Your First Employee – I talk about using a dead simple tool that could help you and your people to get to know each other better.
But, rather than alienating the person you’ve just chatted to – you might want to use it with all of your team – perhaps in a team meeting?
All you have to do, is get everyone to complete the statements below. Then discuss what you’ve all jotted down and how you can respect each other’s preferences. Simples.
- My strengths are…
- My weaknesses are…
- Please do…
- Please don’t…
- How I communicate best…
TO SUM THINGS UP THEN
⚠️ Oh yes, negative employees can be toxic in the workplace.
👀 But as the boss, it’s your job to collect the evidence – and look at your own leadership style too.
☹️ It’s also worth preparing for the likelihood of a mental health issue.
👂🏼 You’ve gotta tackle the problem with a structured conversation, where you do as much listening as talking.
🤔 Finally, take a bit of time to get to know each other better. This can pave the way for beautiful relationships going forward!
If you need more help, get in touch