One of the few good science fiction movies to come out back when I was growing up was “The Andromeda Strain.” Based on the Michael Crichton novel, the movie follows a small group of scientists struggling to contain a modern plague caused by a satellite that crashed in a small town, releasing an extraterrestrial microbe that quickly kills all but two people in the village: a crying baby and a chronic alcoholic. The scientists have to determine why those two were spared so that they can find an antidote to the space-born killer.

To a kid like me, the movie’s scientific mystery was less interesting than its depiction of where the team worked. Code-named Wildfire, it was a secret lab in the Nevada desert built hundreds of feet underground, under a test farm run by the Department of Agriculture. Wildfire had every conceivable scientific device that man could build in the 1960s. It even had a nuclear self-destruct button, designed to blow up the lab and sterilize everything in the event that an extraterrestrial organism somehow escaped containment.

In this column, I want to talk about something that isn’t as a dangerous as a space-born micro-pathogen, but which can still devastate your IT department—and your career. I call it toxic negativity, and you need to be on guard for its symptoms, both in your staff and yourself.

The dangers of toxic negativity
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.

If that isn’t bad enough, their negativity is contagious. If you’re not careful, they can infect the rest of your staff, even those with the healthiest work attitudes.

What do I mean? When I was in high school, we had to read a very short one-act play by Ring Lardner, called Thompson’s Vacation. (I’ve tried to find a copy of the play, without success, online.)

It’s set on a New York City commuter train in the 1920s. As the curtain opens, Thompson is sitting in his seat, looking happily out the window. He’s humming to himself, obviously in a good mood.

A business acquaintance of his, named Haines, sits down in the seat opposite. As I remember it, the dialogue goes something like this:

“Where’ve you’ve been Thompson? Haven’t seen you around lately.”
“I’ve been on vacation,” Thompson replies.
“Did you have a good time? Where did you go?” Haines prompts.
“It was swell. I went to Atlantic City.”
“Atlantic City?” Haines thunders. “Nobody goes to Atlantic City this time of year. If you really want to have a good time in Atlantic City, you need to go in September. Where’d you stay?”
“The St. George. It was a terrific hotel. I loved it.”
“The St. George?” Haines asks, incredulously. “Nobody stays there anymore. If you’re going to go to Atlantic City, you’ve got to stay at the Metropole. Did you see any shows?”
“Sure,” Thompson answers, a little tentatively. “Saw a couple of great shows at the Excelsior.”
Haines shakes his head. “Everyone knows the Excelsior is a dump. The only place to see a show in Atlantic City is at the Caprice.”

This goes on for a couple of minutes, and then Haines gets off at his stop. Thompson stays in his seat, staring out the window. He’s definitely not humming.

A friend of his named Dillon, gets onboard and takes the seat Haines vacated, and says:
“Thompson! First day back? How was your vacation?”
“Rotten,” Thompson replies, staring out the window.
“Where’d you go?” Dillon persists.

You get the point.

The futility of treatment
Over the years, I’ve changed my approach to employees who have toxic negativity. I used to spend lots of time listening to their complaints, trying to understand why everything seemed so terrible.

Let me say again: I’m not talking about the average complaints that all of us have in the workplace. Nor am I talking about the legitimate grievances that your staff needs to feel comfortable bringing to your attention.

Rather, I’m talking about toxic negativity, where an employee is unrelentingly grim about every workplace issue, unhappy about everything, and good at seeing the cloud behind every silver lining. These toxic negative employees would give me fits.

I used to take on the burden of trying to fix their work environment, reasoning that if I could remove all the problems they identified, their attitude would improve and their negativity would decline.

The problem was that it never seemed to work out that way. Whenever I’d fix one problem, the toxic negative employee would identify a couple more. In fact, often my solutions would somehow anger the employee more than the problem they were designed to solve.

I found myself getting more and more defensive about assigning tasks. I would hang my head, and say, “I’m really sorry, but I need you to…” Finally, one of my managers replied in mock exasperation, “Bob, there’s no need to apologize to me for asking me to do my job!”

He was right. Even worse, I was enabling the behavior of employees with toxic negativity. By trying to somehow “fix” the “root causes” of their unhappiness, I was giving them permission to blame me and everyone else, instead of confronting the real issue.

After all, if you have an organization with 100 people and only one or two have this huge issue with negativity, you have to ask yourself: where does the problem lie? Are those other 98 just supernaturally cheerful? Are they unnaturally na�ve or stupid? Or is it that the other two are somehow out of step?

Recently, the comedian Ben Stein wrote a book called How to Ruin Your Life. It’s kind of a mock self-help book, which tells people precisely how to behave if they really want to mess up their lives.

In an interview about the book in a local paper, Stein said, “The single best piece of advice is to have a relationship with someone with a lot of problems and believe in your heart that you can change him or her.”

Too many managers fall into that trap, believing that all their employees are capable of making the drastic attitude change that toxic negativity demands.

Nowadays, I say to the toxic negative employee, “Your attitude is not my problem. It’s my job to tell you that it’s a problem. If you want me to help you fix your problem, I’m happy to do that—but it’s your problem.”

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.