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Managing negative team members

Scott Beagrie

Bad apples: Managing negative team members

Dealing with a bad apple in the team can be a tricky business. Scott Beagrie looks at how to establish the reasons for the person’s attitude and then help them to turn things around

If you’re a fan of BBC reality show The Apprentice, you’ll be familiar with the constant displays of negativity and uncooperative behaviour from some of the candidates.

These kinds of antics can make for hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy viewing, but when translated into the workplace and displayed by one of your team members, it is far less amusing. Negative attitudes and behaviour can lower the morale of your team and have a hugely detrimental effect on your performance.

Everyone has an occasional off-day at work or feels angry and frustrated at times, but in some instances the problem can run much deeper and is far more destructive. At worst, it can derail the team’s day-to-day operations and the organisation’s long-term strategy.

“By far the worst kind of negativity is the long-term, chronic type that saps the person’s will to do anything constructive,” says Stuart Duff, head of leadership development at business psychologists, Pearn Kandola. “A feeling of learned helplessness begins to affect their view of work on a daily basis. This leads to every situation being seen as problematic, and every action and decision made by the organisation is deemed wrong.”

Catherine Adam, lead consultant at organisational change experts, The Chemistry Group, uses the word ‘mood-hoovers’ to describe negative individuals. “They suck [out] all feelings of joy and positivity around them, and make others feel churlish for being positive,” she says, citing jobsworths and employees who hate their roles as particularly guilty.

By far the worst kind of negativity is the long-term, chronic type that saps the person’s will to do anything constructive.

Negative forces in the workplace can come in all sorts of guises. In his book Managing Workplace Negativity, Gary S. Topchik identifies several different types including ‘the locomotives’ who steamroll over others, ‘the perfectionists’ for whom nothing is ever done right, ‘the scapegoaters’ who don’t accept blame for their mistakes, the ‘ice people’ or ‘resistors’ who dislike change, and the ‘rumour-mongers’ who spread gossip that is typically untrue.

It is down to managers to quickly recognise the impact that this negativity is having and then deal with it swiftly rather than allow things to fester. As with many things in life, it is a common mistake to treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

“If you are experiencing negative behaviour at work, it is important for you to decide your approach by understanding more about the reasoning or motives behind the person’s behaviour in that situation,” says Alex Davda, researcher and psychometrics consultant at Ashridge Business School.

“Too often people focus on addressing the visible behaviour itself, which may just have been an impulsive reaction, rather than proactively exploring the reasons why the person is acting in that way.”

Be supportive

It is vital that the individual is told they are having a significant impact on others.

However, while it may be tempting to reprimand them, this is likely to compound the problem and reinforce feelings or attitudes they already have about the company.

“What never works is being negative about the person who is being negative,” says Adam. “Instead, talk to them and try to understand why they are feeling negative. Is it because of how they feel they’re being treated, their belief structure or emotions at that given moment? Or is it values-based or behavioural?” she continues. “Help the person to understand what is going on.”

Duff’s experience of coaching people with such a mindset has taught him that a number of factors can lie behind negative behaviour.

There may have been a gradual reduction in personal confidence because the person has been stuck in a role for too long, or perhaps they didn’t get the promotion they wanted and feel under-valued. The individual may genuinely believe that things just happen to them rather than being in any sort of control.

In some cases, employees consider that being negative and moaning about something might elicit a response from others and improve the situation. “Individuals in these cases can then get into a mindset that nothing is OK, so their ability to solve problems and make clear choices deteriorates,” says Duff.

Taking the blame?

Other reasons behind an employee’s negativity could stem from anxiety about job security (especially in the current economic climate), too heavy a workload or doubts about their manager’s ability to lead the team and achieve organisational goals. Managers should reflect on whether they have a part to play in the problem. For instance, one sure-fire way to provoke a negative reaction from a team member is to exclude them from any decisions about changes to their role.

Managers should also be alert to the possibility that there could be chemical or situational reasons behind the negativity.

If it is the former, the person is likely to be seeing the world through a “negative filter” because of depression, says Adam. “They don’t want that to be the case but a chemical imbalance means this is what happens. If it’s situational, it might be because they are not happy for some reason, perhaps work-related or personal. If someone is going through a divorce or is grieving, you have to treat the situation completely differently than if they are simply not happy at work.”

Clearly, both causes require sensitive treatment, and if depression is the underlying problem, the manager will need to consult with occupational health, HR and possibly a mental health professional.

In many other cases though, if the negativity stems from how an individual feels they have been treated by the organisation, a manager should be able to get things back on track by instituting good practices that directly address the grievance.

This could involve giving them more control over their role, ensuring that their voice is heard, informing them about training opportunities and being supportive of their career development. Above all, the manager should make them feel valued and ensure their efforts are recognised.

The person’s colleagues have an important part to play, too. Duff says if a team member is annoying the rest of the team, then the tendency is to have an argument with them or steer well clear and alienate them. “Doing either of these, however, tells someone that they are not part of the in-group, which in turn will reduce their confidence and further increase their negativity,” he says.

When the negativity stems from a deep-seated cause, managers may have to look at engaging a coach to help the individual. “It could stem from a core attitude such as low self-regard,” says Tammy Day, managing director of performance improvement consultancy, DPA. “There is no quick fix for this.”

Raising awareness

Day says the self-realisation an individual often experiences when they learn that others perceive them in a negative light can provide some real “Aha!” moments. “They often haven’t realised what impact their behaviour has had on the rest of the team,” she says, explaining that in these circumstances the coach would then take the person through some simple exercises to build self-awareness.

Coaching – or certainly a coaching style – helps managers to delve deeper into the reason for the negativity, since by its very nature coaching makes people reflect on themselves and their conduct. “When someone is angry about a specific one-off situation, nine times out of 10 they will vent their frustration and, by doing so, begin to reflect on their situation, their role and what they can do to fix their situation,” says Duff.

“A light touch is necessary as if you try to solve the problem for them, you will almost certainly get more negativity and frustration.”

It is vital to build the person’s self-belief and confidence, says Duff:

“A lot of people might be surprised by this, as people who moan about things at work do not necessarily seem to lack confidence. But the key to success is to address the underlying assumptions that people make about their situation. Explore their thoughts about why their colleagues behave in the way they do, about their motivators, their personal strengths and what they are capable of achieving, and so on. In essence, it is important to re-build a sense of personal control.”

However, not all negativity is bad. If the person is merely challenging the status quo or the way things are done, or even questioning someone else’s behaviour, then there can be business benefits to their actions.

“It could be about shaking things up and being challenging; but if the negativity is coming from a feeling of sourness then that’s very different,” says Day.

In short, one person’s negativity could be another’s ability to spot new opportunities. This could help deliver a stronger competitive edge – and it’s down to the manager to identify the category in which the individual belongs. 


  • rosemary rmr

    There are lot of things to know about team members and handling them. I found this article about how to manage negative team members very helpful and thank you for sharing such valuable information with us. Hope you will provide more info like this. 

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  • Merlin John

    A team in an organization will be best and perfect if it contains positive personalities. If anyone among this group is having negative team members then the things will surely go wrong. In this article it is clearly explained and has suggested the perfect solution.

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  • rosemary rmr

    Such article is both hilarious and provides good insight into the art of living with your colleagues in an organizational set up. Bad teams are may not be really bad, they could be good at what they are good at and to know that good makes the team leader deal efficiently with such teammates.

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