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  Turning Around Negative Attitudes

At one time or another, organizations develop an over-abundance of "negative energy" or attitudes. Sometimes they can be linked to organizational trauma, like down-sizing, budget restraints or workload increases, but sometimes they evolve over time with no apparent triggering event. The negative organization is characterized by increased complaining, a focus on reasons why things can't be done, and what seems to be a lack of hope that things will get better. It feels like the organization in stuck in treacle. And, it's contagious. Negativism can affect even the most positive employees.

What can you do? Based on an article by Arthur Beck and Ellis Hillmar, professors in organization development at University of Richmond, we suggest the following:

Model Positive Behavior

It is obvious that if management is walking negative and talking in a negative way, staff will follow. Don't do it. More than that takes a positive approach with staff by showing confidence in their abilities. Expect a lot, support staff, hold them accountable, confront them and be clear and honest. Set standards for your own work and relations with employees, and work towards meeting them to set an example of positive behavior.

Acknowledge Negativity

You can't ignore negativity and expect it to go away. If you do not acknowledge it, then staff will feel that you are out of touch, and will not be confident in your abilities. Acknowledge the frustration negative feelings, and do not try to convince the person or people that they shouldn’t have their negative feelings. However, when acknowledging employees’ negative feelings, try asking for suggestions regarding what to do about them.

Look For and Identify the Positives in All Situations

Sometimes we forget to find positives. When an employee makes an impractical solution, we are quick to dismiss the idea. We should be identifying the effort while gently discussing the idea. Look for small victories, and talk about them. Turning a negative organization into a positive one is a result of thousands of little actions.

Give Positive Recognition Often

Pretty straight-forward. Provide positive recognition as soon as you find out about good performance. Do not couple positive strokes with suggestions for improvement. Separate them. Combining them devalues the recognition for many people.

Refrain From Collusion on Negativity

It is easy to get caught in the general complaining and bitching, particularly in informal discussions. When faced with negative conversations, consider changing the subject, comment on the negative content ("Let's talk about something more pleasant"), or ask what can be done about the situation (move from negative to positive slant).

A Few More Quick Tips:

Hold a strategic planning session to focus on a positive future (but make sure it is well facilitated).

Encourage staff to find creative ways to make the work environment more enjoyable.

Encourage staff to be involved in decision-making and delegate where possible.

Introduce a "work-smart" program to de-hassle the workplace.


It is not uncommon for organizations to go through periods of negativity. Managers play important roles in determining if that negativity will increase, or whether the trough is relatively short. Above all, remember that it is the little things that you do, day in and day out, that make the difference.

Based on "What Managers Can Do to Turn around Negative Attitudes" (Beck & Hillmar), published in "Performance (A. Dale Tempe, Editor), Facts on File Publications, 1988.

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