Don’t let workplace negativity become epidemic

Robert Lentz
Business Management Daily

Keeping your head down through the daily grind of office life can make you blind to some scary truths.

Negativity usually doesn’t show its face in an obvious way; nobody gives much of a second thought to the occasional employee gripe or outburst, or even a declaration that “if things don’t change, I’m outta here!” A little grumpiness or gossip is as much a part of the scenery at work as a Dilbert calendar or the grease smudges on the buttons of the break room microwave.

But then, at some point no one is quite aware of, the negativity has invisibly accumulated so much mass that the organization itself is operating under a rain cloud that just won’t go away.

In her recent webinar, speaker and business advice columnist Marie McIntyre outlined seven symptoms of a genuine negativity infection.

You’ve worked in places that suffered one — remember what that was like? What can you do to stave off that toxicity before it overwhelms the place where you live five days a week?

The seven symptoms:

1. Informal conversations include a lot of griping. Someone comes into your office to talk shop, and the next thing you know his voice has lowered and it’s become a bashing session. Or a group of employees heads out for lunch and the conversation immediately turns to how annoying the boss is. When staffers are entirely free to talk about anything they like, yet they quickly turn to complaints about work, negativity has won.

2. Employees seldom laugh, joke or celebrate. Birthdays come and go unnoticed; nobody leaves little treats for each other on Halloween or around the holidays; meetings always begin by getting right down to business, with not even 30 seconds spent joshing each other over how many interceptions their favorite football team threw on Sunday. Worst of all, you just don’t hear laughter in the hallways. Instead, the ceaseless drone of the air conditioning is the soundtrack to the workday.

3. Meetings and discussions quickly take on a negative tone. As people grow more sour, they become more emboldened to air their grievances no matter who else is in the room. They start to call out others for their mistakes in a way that harms others and elevates themselves. The usual decorum of meetings cracks around the edges, and employees start looking for ways to be left out of them entirely.

4. People often question the motives of others. Once someone has taken a firm dislike to a co-worker, every action is judged with a heavy gavel. It begins with the assumption that a rival is acting selfishly to get ahead, or at least denying credit to others. It leads to a conspiracy mentality: Susan is out to get me. Rodney hates our department, and that’s why he was late uploading our spreadsheets. Employees are tried and convicted by each other in unseen courts of opinion, branded permanently and with little evidence.

5. Co-workers become easily annoyed or irritated with one another. Watch for gripes centered on personality conflicts over operational ones. The phrase “I can’t stand … ” begins to pop up a great deal, and at any given moment, you can recite a list of who’s had it up to here with who’s idiosyncrasies.

6. Office events are poorly attended. You can often measure the negativity level in the office by taking a head count at Fun Club events. You’ll also start to notice the same people participating again and again while others are a sure bet to stay in their offices or grab their coats and sneak out the door before the pizzas arrive. It means people aren’t looking forward to being around one another a minute longer than necessary. For a team that spends so much time in close quarters, this is a sad statement that needs to be addressed.

7. Managers field a lot of petty complaints. Your open door policy is tested again and again as issues that should be settled by those closely involved are now brought to you for a solution. You should sort these complaints into two categories: “valid” and “playground.” Not much explanation necessary here; if a grievance has an air of a fourth-grader whose ham sandwich was touched by that awful Petey Sniderman again, you’re losing time to negativity, and the walls between co-workers are rising.