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Four things a supervisor can do about employee negativity

August 2, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Cheryl Kuch  

Current Gallup polls suggest more than 70 percent of American workers report feeling either not engaged or actively disengaged in their jobs—i.e., no longer motivated to excel in their current roles.  The economic downturn may be partially to blame; employees have seen many of their colleagues and friends get laid off, perks and benefits get cut and workloads increase.

It is a major problem for employers. But supervisors can help.

As the instructor for the two Principles and Practices of Supervision classes at ASE, I am often asked by participants to identify the greatest challenge supervisors face today. The answer, which I get consistently from supervisors, is dealing with negative employees.

Why is there so much negativity in the workplace? A recent study by Towers Perrin and researchers Gang & Gang determined there are five reasons for most of the employee negativity.

  • An excessive workload
  • Concerns about management’s ability to lead the company forward successfully
  • Anxiety about the future, particularly longer-term job, income and retirement security
  • Lack of challenge in their work, with boredom intensifying existing frustration about workload
  • Insufficient recognition for the level of contribution and effort provided and concerns that pay isn’t commensurate with performance.

Additionally, a current live web poll at, with over 2000 responses asked the question “What is the primary cause of negativity in your workplace?”  The top three selected reasons included:  Lack of direction from management (38 percent), poor communication (13 percent) and constant change that is not well-communicated (11 percent). Additional reasons include excessive workload, lack of challenge, insufficient recognition and anxiety about the future.

Negativity carries a cost. According to an estimate by The U.S. Department of Labor, the cost of negativity in the workplace is around $3 billion annually. But not only is a negative work environment costly for the company; it is also taxing on an employee’s health and quality of life.

Negativity can be particularly problematic for supervisors, especially in the context of retaining good performers.  According to, a new survey by Right Management, the consulting arm of staffing group Manpower, finds that a whopping 84 percent of employees are planning on searching for a new job in 2012, compared to 60 percent of the respondents in a similar survey by Right Management two years ago.

In addition to retention challenges, failure to address negativity can also allow it to proliferate, increase conflict, and impact productivity.

There are four things a supervisor can do to curb negativity in the workplace:

  • Ensure Clear Objectives: Do you assume your employees know what they are expected to do?  Do they know how their work impacts the company overall?  When you communicate assignments, seeking clarity by asking “What questions do you have?” can help identify gaps.
  • Provide Input Opportunities:   Invite ideas and opinions of employees by frequently asking “what do you do think?”  Negative employees often feel like no one is interested in their ideas or understands the impact of decisions.
  • Recognize and Appreciate: Show employees their contribution is valued especially when they do something more or better than they had done before. This needn’t be a sophisticated endeavor; simply stating what you notice, the impact it is having, and expressing your sincere appreciation can go a long way.
  • Set Standards for Behavior: Focus on facts of behaviors and how you expect employees to act, but not what opinions you expect them to have.   Coach employees and hold them accountable to these behaviors.  

There may be more negativity in the workplace today than ever before. But supervisors have it in their power to mitigate it. 

SBAM has some resources that can help.  Consider DISC Assessments and coaching services to keep your team on the right track.

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