In a former life, management consultant Brendan Tobin worked for a communications software company. He enjoyed his job, but had the misfortune of working for a manager who was so dour that it affected Tobin’s ability to produce.

“He would say nasty, mean things all the time,” Tobin recalled. “He thought that being negative was good for competition.” In desperation, Tobin asked for a transfer to another manager. Within a few months, he had increased his productivity dramatically. A coworker who had a similar issue under “Mr. Cruel” switched over to Tobin’s department and achieved similar success.

Negativity can spread like cancer and, unfortunately, it runs rampant in technology companies and IT departments, according to Harvey Bass, CEO of Stascom Technologies, a Management Recruiters International franchise in Sparta, NJ. Of the six industries his firm recruits for, the IT industry is by far the worst when it comes to negative employees, he said.

“IT is still a troubled industry,” he said, noting that 75 percent of IT workers have been laid off at least once in the last two years, and even at the senior level, managers are often too engrossed in their own job security to spend energy taking care of employees and keeping up morale.

Put some effort into it
IT managers haven’t usually placed much value on soft skills like motivating employees and positive reinforcement. Bass said this is because of egos and aggressive personalities in the tech industry, and the obsession with making a lot of money.

The change needs to start with the CEO or CIO. In his own company, for instance, Bass has realized that he absolutely has to be positive at all times. He also advises employees to come to him directly with complaints rather than grouse to coworkers.

“Talk to your boss,” he advised. “No one else can help you.”

CIOs who want to combat negativity need to stay away from the terminally negative people. If bad apples can’t change their ways, fire them, said Tobin, who helps companies with strategy, planning, and other management skills. The consultant is an ironic source of tips on fighting negativity.

“I used to be a miserable, nasty, mean person,” he admitted. After getting fired from a dead-end job, Tobin said, his life was changed one evening while watching the news. “It was a story about the KKK protesting, and it occurred to me that their anger didn’t get them anywhere all these years—nor me.”

Tobin took matters into his own hands, and eventually reinvented himself as a consultant helping companies perform better. But not everyone has that motivation, and some people prefer to wallow in their negativity.

When Mike Hugos joined Chicago’s Network Services Company as the new CIO, he butted heads with his director of operations, who resented Hugo because he wanted the CIO spot. The director griped about Hugos to the whole team, which eventually got back to the CIO. It wasn’t long before the situation became unmanageable. Hugos fired him. He doesn’t regret the decision, even though it was uncomfortable. “Corporations are not a democracy. There is a point at which management has to cut out the cancer.”

Breeding positive vibes
Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent negativity from happening in the first place? When staffers are grumpy, fortunately, it often just takes a one-on-one between a manager and his employee to determine the root of the problem and come up with some solutions. But you should also think hard about small things you can do to keep spirits high.

For instance, Tobin said, does the money saved by cutting free coffee really make that much difference to the bottom line? If it keeps employees happy and spreads goodwill, why not just keep the perk?

Next, take a good look at yourself. Hugos tries to undo what he believes is the number-one cause of sour grapes in the IT world: management hypocrisy. Senior managers get the fat salaries and the company cars; middle managers and their employees get 12-hour days and weekends with no hope for a bonus.

To counteract that, he gives his employees the same percentage raise that he receives from the CEO. To celebrate an increase in IT customer satisfaction rates, he persuaded the CEO to take the team to a nice restaurant. He also tries to encourage flexibility. He tells the team what needs to be done, but lets them decide how. He said he doesn’t micromanage and often looks the other way if someone needs an extra day off. At the same time, he has clear performance expectations.

Promote positive action
Whenever possible, Hugos discourages behaviors that breed negativity. For instance, he doesn’t tolerate employees who enjoy ridiculing people on the business side, a common complaint about IT workers.

“It’s like picking your nose in public,” he said. “It’s a bad habit.” He also watches out for managers who employ a parent/child dynamic with employees, because it always leads to destructive relationships. The workplace is not a family, he said, no matter what people say. “The family analogy is a crock, because I don’t throw my family out on the streets to save a couple bucks.”

Turning negative employees into positive ones is not just a feel-good exercise. Ultimately, it affects the bottom line, because people perform better when they’re happy.

“We would probably have less errors, more creativity, less turnover, and more consistency. People would stay in their functions longer and companies would spend less money hiring and retraining people,” said Bass.

Tips for staying positive
The experts and managers interviewed offered these ideas to keep negativity at bay:

  • Negativity trickles down. As a leader, don’t vent your problems or worries to your team.
  • Institute open-door policies for yourself and other top officers and managers.
  • Learn how to be an effective listener. It is an acquired skill, and there are books and consultants who can teach you.
  • Treat your employees equitably with senior management, whenever possible.
  • If you suspect an employee is disgruntled, schedule a meeting and find out why.
  • Make sure employees are in the right jobs for their skill sets and interests.
  • Do as much as you can, knowing that you can’t resolve every issue.
  • If all else fails, fire negative employees. Negativity is poisonous!