As Thomas Edison developed the light bulb, he went through hundreds of designs that didn’t work. At one point a reporter asked him, “Mr. Edison, aren’t you tired of failing?” “Failing?”
Negativity is one of the most destructive forces that can be unleashed on an organization. Allowed to germinate and spread, it oozes into every crevice, eating away at morale, teamwork, and initiative and, in the end, often creating the failure it predicted. And it’s no small problem. HR publisher B21 conducted a poll of the effect of negativity on 150 employers. Nearly half called it a “significant problem.” And 1 in 20 called it “downright poisonous.”
The Causes of Negativity
Why does workplace negativity develop? A study by international consultant Towers Perrin and behavioral researchers Gang & Gang, reported by the HR columnist Susan M. Heathfield, found these five reasons:
1) Excessive workload
2) Concerns about management ability
3) Worry about job and retirement security
4) Lack of challenge or outright boredom on the job
5) Perceived lack of recognition, both in pay and other forms.
Some of these are immediately addressable; others require long-term solutions beyond the reach of the typical HR department. However, Heathfield and others have suggested ways to defuse negativity on a day-to-day basis: Here’s a summary of those suggestions:
--Practice Positive Management: How you look at things will dictate how your staff sees them. While being realistic, point out the positive in all situations. And save any critical comments for a separate occasion.
--Don’t Ignore Negativity. It will become stronger unless you acknowledge it exists and ask for ways to make things better. Be prepared to respond honestly to any suggestions you receive. While you may not win over the chronic complainers, others will appreciate your willingness to listen and provide answers.
--Offer recognition, and lots of it! Focus on the small successes as well as the large, and keep the praise and any critiques well separated. Don’t expect to change attitudes overnight. Positive perceptions are built over time.
--Counsel the complainers about the effect they’re having. Often workers with a negative attitude don’t realize how much their behavior influences others. Once they find out, they moderate their attitudes.
Finally, realize that you can’t please everyone. There are some people whose negativity derives from reasons far beyond the workplace. No matter what you do, you won’t be able to convert them. “Negativity mongers need a new job, a new company, a new career, a new outlook or counseling,” says Heathfield. “They don’t need you.”
Once, companies were organized into hierarchies of workers headed by supervisors. Today, the team is king. HR managers must consequently understand team dynamics and find ways to bring disparate personalities together and make the team work.
Nine Skills, But Also One Caveat
As we listed these skills, one thing we didn’t do was try to prioritize them. Because no general list of skills can take into account the business strategy at your particular organization.
Which leads to the caveat we mentioned, as expressed by Bob Brady.
“HR is a creature of, and serves the business strategy,” Brady says. “It’s important for HR people to know what that strategy is and what makes the business tick so the approach to HR can be tailored accordingly.
“Never think of HR in isolation,” he advises. “Because if Human Resources professionals think of themselves as ‘just HR,’ that’s what the rest of the organization will think too.”