Workplace negativity is rapidly "emerging as a disease of the 21st century corporation," according to Gary S. Topchik, author of Managing Workplace Negativity. And, like any other chronic illness, it could undermine corporate operations and cripple long-term growth, Topchik contends.
As a management consultant to large companies, Topchik has seen firsthand the effects of negativity. He’s found it’s particularly prevalent in many technology companies where newly minted managers are thrust into roles they’re unprepared to tackle.
Topchik defines negativity as the eventual outcome of unchecked pessimism, a pattern of pessimistic thinking that persists over time. Individuals, teams, departments, or entire organizations can be pessimistic, he added.
"IT managers have a tougher time dealing with negativity because the majority of them actually don’t want to be managers, nor do they enjoy the role initially," Topchik said during a recent interview.
Why IT managers are at risk
Topchik estimates that 90 percent of IT managers don’t want to be managers. While his numbers may be high, the fact remains: Many IT workers become IT managers not because they want to but because that’s where many career paths inevitably end. So why do they take the job?
"The most common reasons are opportunity to move up, earn more money, and gain the respect of top management," Topchik said. Yet, the majority of new IT managers feel they’re making a big sacrifice and would rather focus on their technical responsibilities. "Suddenly, they’re thrust into a role they don’t understand. That’s partly because they were never trained to be managers."
IT managers have to work harder at being managers because the role is contrary to the way they’re taught to think, according to Topchik.
"IT people are very logical thinkers. An order and methodology exists for everything they do," he said. "They’re focused on ideas, concepts, and problems rather than people."
The problem is you can’t apply rules and logic to human beings because behavior is unpredictable, often unexplainable, and misunderstood.
"A good IT manager finds he (or she) has to put technology training aside and learn how to deal with the complex human equation, which takes time, patience, and energy," Topchik said. "It's very easy for managers who can't separate managing a staff with their technical responsibilities to be at odds with themselves and become negative in their new role. Many resent having to deal with people issues because it's something they never had to think about."
The feeling among most old-line traditional companies is managers can learn on-the-job. That's a false assumption because managing others is not a skill that typically can be learned by emulating your boss. Additionally, there’s no guarantee the boss is a great manager.
This factor makes IT managers particularly vulnerable to workplace negativity.
The worst part is if managers don’t overcome their negativity, it's almost certain it will be passed on to their subordinates. Then, it's like a plague that spreads and gets worse if not stopped. It becomes a way of life, a bad habit. We’re often not aware of our negative attitudes, according to Topchik. If not managed and overcome, it will affect everyone's attitude toward work and eventually impact the organization's bottom line. Needless to say, that’s the worst possible scenario for a growing company.
But there are plenty of signposts that help identify a negativity problem.
"There are visual, vocal, and body language signals," Topchik said. "Visually, negative people have a downbeat, often depressed the world-owes-me-a living expression. They frown a lot, look discouraged, and generally look unhappy."
Negative people will also broadcast pessimism by complaining and being difficult to work with, including being abrupt and discouraging to the people who report to them.
"They’ll use negative phrases such us ‘It will never work,’ ‘It can’t be done,’ [and] ‘Not on your life,’ all of which can take the steam out of any project," he said.
Negativity will also show in body language. Those suffering from negativity may look as if they’re dragging themselves through the day; their shoulders are slumped, and their gait is slow and methodical.
Eventually, the impact of negativity takes its toll. Topchik lists the following outcomes:
- Increased customer complaints
- Increased error rates and a lessening of work quality
- Increased turnover
- Increased absences and lateness
- Increased personality conflicts
- Loss of morale and motivation
- Loss of loyalty to the organization
- Loss of creativity and innovation
- Loss of a competitive spirit
Yet, most negative managers aren’t aware of their behavior because they get no feedback. Subordinates won’t tell them because they risk losing their jobs. But, sooner or later, the negativity catches up to them. Either a customer/client complains or upper management finally confronts the negative manager.
"Unless someone points out their negativity, they might never know about it," said Topchik.
What to do if you’re confronted about negativity
Denial can get you fired, but doing something about it can turn your life around, according to Topchik. The process of dealing with negativity begins with getting feedback from your boss. As hard is it is to find out about your mistakes and poor behavior, get as much information as you can. This leads to insight and change.
Find out what’s causing the negativity. Is it the difficulties in managing people, no support from management, or that you’re no longer working hands-on with technical projects? Maybe you’d be happier going back to a technical job? The new responsibility may not be worth the extra money.
You stand a better chance of making a smart decision once you know the cause of your negativity. However, don’t be rash, advised Topchik. Give the job at least six months before you make a decision.
It wouldn’t hurt to take a management course during this period. Who knows, you might see the manager’s job in a new light and decide to stick with it. If not, return to your old job.
"There is no disgrace in returning to work you thoroughly enjoyed," Topchik said. "It’s more important to love what you do."
Why did you become an IT manager?
We’d like to know why you decided to become an IT manager. Do you agree with Topchik’s contention that most IT managers take the role for more money or prestige? Post your comments below.