Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Positive Approach to Negative People

I recently read an article telling managers that they should "get rid of" people whose negative attitudes are adversely affecting productivity and morale within their organizations.

I agree that is a manager's ultimate responsibility, but emphasize the word "ultimate." In far too many cases, managers go from looking the other way to swinging the axe, with the excuse that you can't make people change their attitudes.

"Getting rid of" someone should be a last resort, taken if and only if efforts to induce a more positive workplace environment and the corresponding attitudes of individuals who work there are not successful.

In that spirit, I share some of the most important lessons I've learned about taking a positive approach to negative people in my years with coaching managers and owners. These principles apply not only to management - replace the words "organization"
and "manager" with "family" and "parent" and you can take them home with you.

One: Recognize that toxic emotional negativity is always an outward projection of some inner pain (anxiety, envy, low self-esteem, etc.), and that helping people be more positive at work often means helping them achieve a higher level of self-mastery in their personal lives. To say that's not your responsibility is to sell short your organization, your employees, and the people you serve.

Two: Toxic emotional negativity is like the big smelly elephant in the middle of the living room. Everyone knows it's there, but no one wants to talk about it. Expectations regarding how attitudes are reflected in behaviors should be clear in orientation, performance appraisals, staff meetings, informal coaching, and every other possible venue.
Instead of complaining about someone's negative attitude, managers should have the courage to confront it in a constructive way.

Three: Attitudes are not genetic qualities; they are habits that are directly influenced by organizational culture, the behaviors of peers, and expectations of managers. As with all efforts to change inappropriate or self-destructive habits, fostering a more positive workplace is best achieved with gentle pressure relentlessly applied.

Four: Be clear and specific about the link between values and behaviors. For example, I do not know of an organization or an individual that does not claim to hold Integrity as an important value. Yet I do not know of an organization that does not have a rumor mill, and I know very few individuals who do not at least on occasion participate.

Always remember that, gossip always violates integrity; seen in that light, managers have a higher obligation to eliminate it from the workplace.

Five: Teach people practical skills for confronting toxic emotional negativity. A good example would be for your next meeting with your team(s), break out into small groups and ask people to create skits demonstrating how they would confront inappropriate attitudes.

Most people are very uncomfortable with it, and not very good at it. These are important management skills, and should be taught, role-played, and critiqued (books like Crucial Confrontations, Fierce Conversations and The Coward's Guide to Conflict can help). Likewise, there are very effective techniques for confronting gossip and other inappropriate behaviors.

Six: Give people tools to depersonalize the confrontation.
One of the most powerful tools in the quest for a smoke-free world was the simple No Smoking sign. Instead of confronting someone lighting a cigarette, we were able to point to the sign and achieve the desired result with minimal risk of conflict. When I trained and coached managers at Minolta Corporation. We used the Pickle Challenge that our Spark Plug groups (Top Leading Managers) use to foster a more positive workplace includes cute signs, pickle jars, and The Pickle Pledge as visual prompts to reinforce positive attitudes.

Seven: Be a positive example. It's remarkable how frequently we hear managers whine and complain about how tired they are of hearing their people whine and complain. This is an easy trap to fall into. As a manager (or as a parent), you must assume that you are always on stage, and set an example of a positive and optimistic attitude for those who look to you for direction.

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”.
Dwight D. Eisenhower


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