Your thoughts on the challenge of toxic negativity

When toxic negativity rears its ugly head in your department, you have to be prepared. Here are member responses to the latest Artner's Law column, which examined the best methods for handling an employee with an toxic attitude infection.

As a columnist, I rarely know for sure which topics I write about will evoke a strong reaction from you. I can guess, of course, but what I try to do is write about topics that I'm interested in, and hope that you are interested in them as well.

Sometimes, I get lucky, and write about something that really strikes a chord. Evidently, that was the case with "Run away from toxic negativity before you're infected too." In that column, I argued that some employees have such a negative attitude that they can pose a danger of "attitude infection" to you and the rest of your staff.

The column provoked a good bit of discussion, most of it both thoughtful and impassioned. From your reaction, it seems obvious that many of you have to deal with toxic employees on a regular basis. In this column, I'm going to highlight some of your comments, especially your suggestions on how to deal with such employees.

There's negativity, and then there's "toxic negativity"
One of the points I tried to stress in my column was that toxic negativity is different from mere grumpiness or whining about a particular issue. Here is how I described the difference:

"To begin at the beginning: There is negativity, and then there is toxic negativity. The difference is important. All of us occasionally have a bad day, or even a bad month. We all grouse and complain. It's human nature, and a little negativity isn't a bad thing—it keeps us honest. We tend not to trust a person who is upbeat all of the time.
"An employee with toxic negativity is another thing entirely. When an employee (or a manager) has toxic negativity, he or she is constantly unhappy. Every situation in the office is a crisis, and all news is bad news. You can count on such a person to always offer the worst possible interpretation of any event."

Some readers wanted to focus on this. For example, consider what dlocke had to say about the value of negativity:

"Within reason, negativity has its place in IT.
"As problem solvers, it is often our job to see problems when others don't. Often, too much sunshine can make for a very stormy project outcome….
"It's easy to complain, and easier to become intolerant of critics. Yet some of us do our best thinking in this mode. Tying responsibility for providing a solution to the opinions of the complainers can be a great way to stop negativity because they'll be forced to think through to a solution (assuming there is one) before speaking out, or be too busy fixing the problem to complain about it. And if they do fix the problem, you've just turned your complainer into a proud and positive producer.
"Call me old fashioned, but I believe that attitude is NOT everything, and those that do not excel at being sunny do not deserve to be shown the door, as so many HR types would like to have us believe. We in IT should know that the simplest solution is not always the best."

Of course, I don't think I was denouncing all negativity, but this post probably states the case for negativity in certain circumstances better than I did.

On the other hand, I tend to agree with the distinction made by Prefbid II, who wrote:

"There is a big difference between a pessimist and a toxic personality. A pessimist looks at a problem and always sees the worst possible outcome. That worst outcome may be a long shot, but it is in the realm of possible.
"A toxic personality is a person who looks at events, any event, and sees a sinister motivation, conspiracy, or just something to complain about. If he is assigned a cube near the window, you are trying to force him to have sunstroke. If you move him away from the window, you are demoting him in the eyes of his peers…."

I also like what Wayne M said:

"I need people who can work together to solve a problem, not people who can orate at length why the solution is doomed."

What to do about toxic negativity
The most interesting discussion posts about my column were centered on what to do about toxic employees. Broadly speaking, most people fell into one of two camps. One group focused on what I'd call a therapeutic approach, which emphasizes the need to find out why a toxic employee has such an attitude, and attempts to deal with the root cause of his or her discontent. The other group concentrated on a more surgical approach, which articulated the desire to separate the employee from the rest of the organization before others could be affected.

Speaking for the therapeutic approach, wschober states the case well, saying:

"As managers we need to understand what each employee's primary motivators are (i.e., economic/social/self-actualization). This will provide clues to behavior.
"Also useful in understanding the root causes of behavior is an understanding of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow states that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and that certain lower needs need to be satisfied before higher needs can be satisfied.

Another advocate for this approach, gvlx, made the following observation about the toxic employee:

"That person must be addressed directly—and several tools from social psychology are available, some requiring more skills than others. Many are highly effective (most notably "active listening," but there are many more). If you do not know or feel unable to master them, you need to call for help….
"Bottom line: talk, person to person."

That said, most readers took the opposite approach. For example, Kevin Konynenbelt, while sympathetic to the toxic employee, stated:

"There are expectations for behavior within a professional environment. Clearly stating the expectations with staff is the first step. No one is disputing the need for 'constructive' criticism—but what we're dealing with here are folks who are avoiding their professional responsibilities, and abdicating their contributions.
"We all know that it is sometimes impossible to completely separate 'real life' from 'business life'—but if your business life becomes your forum for dealing with personal issues—it needs to be gently but firmly (and potentially quite firmly) suggested that there are responsibilities that come with the job."

Kevin was responding to trinicelia, who said, in part:

"In an ideal world, we would all like to help the person to get out of the rut of toxicity but my motto has to be that we are running a business, not a social work department. Once I have tried pep talks, referral to counseling, and EAP programs, I try to figure out how to move the person on."

Another reader, Mr. L, points out that trying the therapeutic approach has its own dangers:

"I think we should all, as 'good' managers, strive to understand the motivations and desires of our teams and staff, not a philosophy that I would contest. What is being addressed, as the original article points out (and accurately too, I might add), is the individual who will never, ever, be happy about what is going on around them. They exist.
"It may be an issue of clinical depression, it may be a lousy life away from the work place, it may be resentment at having to work for a living—who knows? We, as managers, are not clinical psychologists...nor are we 'wellness counselors'...nor should we be.... We are not responsible for the happiness of our charges, and we play a dangerous game that can be detrimental to ourselves, and the individual we target with our well-meaning forays into pop-psychology when we try to be."

What about you?
As I said, this topic hit a nerve with many readers. In addition to the discussions posted to the column, I received a number of e-mails from readers talking about the details of situations they've had to deal with over the years. Whether you take the therapeutic or the surgical approach, odds are this is a problem you'll encounter more than once in your years as an IT manager. With the increased workloads and decreased resources we've all encountered over the past couple of years, my guess is that this topic will be relevant to technical managers for years to come, unfortunately.

From the IT Leadership Web log
If you like my column, you should enjoy my Web log for technical managers and their bosses. It's called IT Leadership—check it out today. It's free, and I post to it almost every business day.

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