Toxic tantrums: What to do when negativity consumes your workplace

My friend – let’s call him Dave – is the Managing Director of a small but longstanding manufacturing company. He is a very busy man. All too frequently, however, he finds it’s for all the wrong reasons.

“On the days when I’m in the office, I’m basically a school teacher,” he explains. “I’m dealing with people issues daily – as a relationship manager, there’s very little time to be a business manager.”

The people issues he describes relate to a deeply ingrained “culture of nastiness” between staff members, many of whom have developed volatile communication styles in their interactions with colleagues – both those with whom they share an office and those they deal with interstate.

“These guys just tend to bump heads constantly,” Dave says. “I think perhaps it was allowed to develop by previous managers who didn’t want to intervene and address the issues, so it became the norm for people in the way they responded to each other. It’s pretty clear that there are some serious implications for the efficiency of the business.”

Enter my second friend – let’s call her Alice. The problem in her office is the same – but different. Unlike Dave, the MD in Alice’s office has been blissfully unaware of an insidious negativity that has begun to corrupt the attitudes of staff to their work. According to Alice, that’s because his “gravitas” has deterred them from expressing themselves in his presence – so they’ve taken to unloading on Alice, a middle manager, instead.

“Everything my team does and everything the business is doing is bad – and apparently it’s my fault,” she says. “There’s no focus at all on the good we are trying to do and the efforts we are making. It’s a terribly toxic environment in which to work, but these people seem determined to perpetuate it.”

Alice will inevitably be taking her concerns to the boss in due course, but when the full horror is revealed to him what course of action will they take? How do you deal with negative attitudes in the workplace when they threaten to become a dangerous contagion?

For Dave, while he was already greatly concerned with the cultural issues he had identified, it took an official accusation of bullying to bring things to a head. And as if to emphasise the longstanding nature of the problem in this particular workplace, the accused had been employed by the business for more than three decades. He had come to virtual blows with a colleague in another office 1000 miles away.

“It was an email war, let me tell you,” Dave says. “We had to investigate it and handle it very carefully, and we ultimately got some professional help to get him to deal with his issues.”

That professional help came in the form of a mentoring program with a business consultant. “He essentially volunteered to take part,” Dave says. “After a first meeting he came to me and opened up about some of the things he’d discussed and he was very enthusiastic – he was starting to see that things were not that pretty in terms of his style and his manner. It was something we’d obviously seen but hadn’t been able to make him understand.”

The success of the program has encouraged Dave to plan further sessions for other employees with similar longstanding issues.

“I think we’ve dealt with the real bullying now, so we need to turn our attention to the broader communication issues – the negative style of interaction that has been allowed to develop here, and the need to be self-aware and responsive to the point of view of others,” Dave says. “And that will naturally extend to being more responsive to the needs of the business, which means better operational efficiency and productivity.”

So through this process, what are the top 5 lessons Dave has learned that he feels he can pass on to someone like Alice who is being confronted by a culture of negativity in her workplace?

Dave’s Top 5 tips to negate negativity:

  • Don’t put your head in the sand

“It’s easy to pretend there isn’t a problem – especially when you’re someone like me who travels away from the office regularly. No one wants to have confrontations at work, but you’ve got to bite the bullet, get the issues identified and make it clear that they need to be addressed – or everybody is going to lose.”

  • Don’t feed the monster

“Whatever you do, don’t buy into the negative vibe. You’ve got to ask a lot of questions to get to the bottom of what’s causing employees to be so negative or hostile in their outlook, but you’ve got to colour your inquiries with some optimism of your own – and whatever you do, don’t lose your own temper or get into a slanging match.”

  • Reward positivity – and have fun

“We’ve been in business so long, I think we may have become a little complacent in terms of recognising good performance when it happens – with so many long-serving employees, the job tends to get taken for granted. One thing we’ve changed for the better is to reintroduce some regular awards and other forms of recognition for those who are making positive contributions – especially those who go out of their way to make their colleagues’ lives a little easier. And we have a social occasion each month to present the awards, just to remind people it’s still possible to have fun here.”

  • Become part of ‘the mission’

“Another thing we may have lost sight of is the need for people to feel they are contributing to a greater good. We decided to go through a process of reminding people how their role fits in to the overall goals the company has for its success. It’s early days, but it seems to have struck a chord. It’s easier to be positive when you can see your work has a tangible impact.”

  • Don’t be afraid of tough decisions

“Ultimately, you’ve got to pick your battles. We believe we can turn around a lot of the negative culture that’s developed in our business, but you’ve got to be prepared to recognise when someone is not doing themselves the favour of buying in to the positive mindset. As with any performance-related issue, that has to be dealt with appropriately and effectively – and sometimes with unfortunate outcomes.

“I’m hopeful we’ll gain some harmony in the workplace,” Dave adds as a final note. “I don’t expect people to be friends at work, but they do have to work together.”

What do you think of Dave’s Top 5 lessons for nipping negativity in the bud? Have you implemented similar procedures in your workplace? Or do you think you can offer a much better set of tips for Alice and other managers like her? Please start a conversation, share your stories and add your comments below.

Should you require any advice on this subject, please contact Emma Howden, Ai Group’s National Training Manager, Workplace Relations.

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