By Guy Harris

One fairly common question I get from Bud to Boss workshop participants is:

How do you deal with a persistently or aggressively negative team member?”

While the full answer in a given situation depends on many situation-specific details, there is a thread of common themes that applies to almost all of my experiences with the issue and the conversations I have had with workshop participants.

The common threads are:

  1. Listen to their story:
    In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni makes the point that reasonable, rational people do not need to get their way as much as they need to be heard and understood. I agree with his point.
    Much of the time, people who are persistently or aggressively negative behave that way because they have a frustration or concern that they have been attempting to verbalize and no one is listening. The first step to addressing their negativity is to be the person who listens to and understands them.
  2. Ask Them to Define a Problem They See that You Can Solve:
    The next step in the process of addressing persistent negativity is to ask or help them to define a problem they see that the two of you can solve together.
    The “solve together” part of that last statement is critical.
    If they have been trying to be heard for long enough, their complaints and frustrations have probably grown to the point that much of what they are frustrated by is beyond your control. In this second step, you are attempting to work with them to prove that, while you cannot solve every problem, you are willing to work with them to solve the problems that you can solve.
  3. Invite Them to Help You Solve the Problem:
    Finally, invite them into the solution process. Ask them what they can contribute to the solution and then give them the time and resources to do what they can.
    If they are part of the solution, they are more likely to be positive about it and to embrace it as a legitimate answer to their concern. In addition, they will see progress firsthand rather than hearing about it from you. Both involvement in the solution and seeing progress tend to blunt persistent or aggressive negativity.

As a reality check, I will offer that in some situations I and the leaders I have worked with have not been able to get persistently negative team members all the way to a positive outlook. In most situations we have been able to get to a state of “at least not aggressively negative.” While not a perfect outcome, it is progress.

Also, as you work with your persistently negative team member, you might need to do more than just these three ideas. Using them as a starting point, though, will begin the process of moving your team away from negativity and frustration and towards progress and results.


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