The most dangerous thing about negativity in the workplace is that it can be catching — unless you are careful. This month’s column answers your questions about how to effectively deal with and survive negative attitudes coming at you from all directions — your teammates, people you supervise and even from the director.

Question: It’s so hard to work alongside one of our team members. He is always complaining, griping, criticizing and generally putting down everything and everyone around him. I’m not his boss, just his coworker, so what can I do?

The best place to start is always with honesty. Hopefully, you have a work culture and relationship that supports honest, open communication. So, my first suggestion would be for you to ask if you can talk to this person for a moment in private, and you can then share your concerns. Always, always begin conversations like this positively or with appreciation. That is, start with sharing how much you love your job and being part of the same team, and find something positive you can say about his contribution in particular. (Is he good with collection development? Budgeting? Programming?) Then get to the difficult part. That part of the conversation might go something like this:

“It’s really effective when we all keep a positive attitude about our work, even when things aren’t going all that well. We find solutions faster and we all like coming to work more. You may not be aware of this, but sometimes you appear negative and critical, and this affects everybody’s morale. Examples of this are when you say, ‘That will never work’ or ‘We wouldn’t have the time to even try that.’ I’m not saying you’re wrong. I just want to let you know that I would really appreciate it if you could keep those comments to yourself around me and the rest of the team and stay positive so we can be better problem-solvers as a team.”

I’ve seen a couple different reactions to this approach, from embarrassment and a commitment to improve to even sharper criticism and even anger. Like I said, this is only a place to start, and each person will have their own personal communication style when having difficult conversations like this.

Remember, everyone has a boss, and when the productivity of the team is threatened, that boss wants to know about it and have a chance to make it right. So, if Plan A didn’t work, I’d ask for a meeting with the boss. Again, don’t get personal (i.e., saying, “He’s always mean to everyone” won’t solve anything). But, the same appreciative approach just might work. Consider a comment like this:

“I love working here and, for the most part, this team is respectful of one another and we serve our community well. I think we could do better, though, if we were all respectful and kept a positive attitude, but right now that’s not the case. I’ve spoken to Employee A privately about the negative comments he makes, but I don’t feel there has been a change since then. I’d like to help brainstorm some ideas on how we can foster a positive environment and have everyone on the team involved. I’d be happy to do some research into some team-building exercises in which we could take part.”

Stop there and see what the reaction is, because you know what? The boss probably already knows about the problem, so you won’t even have to get into any more detail. See what his or her thoughts are, and, hopefully, you’ll arrive at some possible solutions that will implement change in your workplace.

Your third option? Sometimes, leaders support negativity (read on) and have no interest at all in creating a healthy, positive work culture. That’s when you have to decide how important this issue is to you. I hope it’s very important, because we all deserve to spend our days in a healthy, uplifting environment. Maybe it’s time to polish your resume and start looking for a place where you can thrive.

You can’t fix everything — or everyone — all the time.

Question: I can’t even begin to correct the very negative attitude of one of the people I supervise. Every time I try to bring up the subject, she gets so defensive! Should I just let it go?

Don’t give up! One of the best and most important pieces of advice I ever heard was that when you are a boss and you see a problem — it’s yours. You have to fix it or find someone else who can. And, as you can see from the question above, just one negative and cynical person can do a lot of damage to the healthy team you’re trying to build.

So, here’s what you can do: treat this negative behavior for what it is — a performance issue. Surely somewhere, in some part of the person’s job description, there’s something that says she must be a good communicator, or she must offer excellent customer service (this is both internal and external) or she must have a friendly attitude. If you look through the entire job description and don’t find at least one of these, you better back up and start rewriting the skills required for the job! But, let’s assume you do find one of these qualifiers — that’s your ticket for beginning to improve performance.

As with any performance issue, begin with an honest, appreciative conversation. Sit down and discuss first the positive aspects of the person’s contributions, then tell them very clearly 1) what the problem is, 2) why it is having a negative impact, 3) what you’re going to do to help support positive change, and (this is critical) 4) what the consequences will be if this behavior continues.

I once worked with a manager who said, “Well, he’s really sarcastic and critical but he does his job well, so there’s nothing I can do about the negativity, right?” Wrong! Believe me when I tell you that once you help this team member improve her attitude, the rest of the team will be eternally grateful!

Question: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to encourage a positive attitude among our staff when the director demonstrates just the opposite. But he’s the boss, so there’s no hope for fixing that, right?

There’s always hope. Sometimes, leaders honestly don’t know what impression they’re giving or how impactful it is! It’s not an excuse but an explanation that very demanding, high pressure jobs can sometimes refocus well-intentioned, caring people away from their staff and onto facts, figures and reports.

Again, I would suggest starting with a direct, respectful and honest conversation. If the director’s negativity is impacting the management team, I wouldn’t begin with “You shouldn’t be so negative!” The thing about directors is they are just like everyone else. If you come at them with criticism, they react defensively and little progress is made.

Rather, try communicating in a way that will help them be more successful in reaching their goal of an effective workplace. For example, “I think I know a way that you can help the management team be more motivated, energized and effective.” Then, you can approach your discussion of how positive feedback would help. You might not even have to mention openly how negative feedback does not.

Remember though, you can’t fix everything or everyone. I’ve known plenty of people who have changed jobs because they finally decided they just couldn’t work day in and day out in a negative environment. And, try as they might, they couldn’t affect positive change.

In summary, the best way to beat negativity in the workplace is, as Gandhi said, to be the change you want to see in the world. Imagine how much better going to work every single day would be if you and everyone else treated one another in a positive, appreciative, professional and respectful manner. I know that’s the environment in which I’d want to work.

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