Nobody wants to be the worst, most negative employee ever. Honestly, they don’t, despite what you may think.

No one gets up in the morning and says to themselves in the mirror, ‘Today I’m going to really suck at my job, get on people’s nerves and be the most negative influence I can be.’

However, that’s exactly how some people behave from time to time. They get pulled down by their life, their work or the people around them.

When they are being the least emotionally intelligent version of themselves not only are they less productive than they normally would be, but there’s also a danger that they’ll pull those around them down too. At that point, you have a stagnant or combatant culture, which we generally describe as ‘toxic’. Too much time here and good staff are lost, sick leave increases along with stress and anxiety, team safety and productivity are affected and people feel ‘stuck in a rut’.

But what to do to avoid getting to that point?

Telling someone to be positive won’t work, neither will telling them to show you a smile. Talking about them behind their back might feel like you’re getting your frustrations off your chest, but it will ultimately make you feel bad and you don’t want that to happen because then you’ll slide down with them.

Imagining some kind of violent outburst towards them (‘I’d love to tell them to…’) isn’t helpful nor is trying to telepathically project what you want them to do (yes, you know you’ve tried it).

It’s a conundrum that lots of people face on a daily basis and small steps need to be taken in order to understand the root cause of why your toxic team member feels the way they do. Empathy and persistence are required in order to help them recognise the emotion they are feeling and to become more positive about their work. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen over time.

I’ve worked with a few of these seemingly perennially ‘glass half empty’ people in my time and, of course, I’ve been one myself. We all have. In my experience, the way to approach it is to lead with empathy and active listening, asking questions like:

  • You haven’t been yourself of late and I’d like to understand what I can do to help?
  • Are you clear on your priorities? What’s important and what’s urgent?
  • Are you waiting on anything that is stopping you from getting the job done?
  • What’s one thing I can do to help you right now?
  • Is there anything you’re worried about that you’d like to share?

Don’t ever make the questions or conversation about what you need or interrupt while they’re talking. Make notes if you don’t have a great memory (particularly as this may be one of many conversations) and focus on helping them achieve what they need to do.

Involve them in conversations and never put them on the spot. Give them opportunities to be creative and check in on them during the week (but be careful not to micro-manage).

Poor behaviour and performance, of course, is a completely different matter and whilst it needs to be handled empathetically and fairly, it also needs to be handled firmly too. One bad apple can destroy a team culture, so you can’t let that happen.

You need to set expectations really well, ensure that they’ve been understood, request updates on progress and ensure that they hit their goals. If they don’t respond then you need to keep a record of the things you’ve done and once you’ve given them three or so opportunities to meet the expectations set and had the tough conversation with them, then HR needs to get involved.

Hoping that the issue will resolve itself or that the person will eventually change are ways of avoiding confrontation and you can’t let that happen. If you do this, you send the message to the team that poor performance and behaviour is tolerated and we’re back to our toxic culture again.

Throughout all of this, you have to be the best, most emotionally intelligent version of yourself. You have to role model the things you want them to do, otherwise, you’re ‘talking a good game’ or ‘not walking the talk’. You will need vision, energy, patience, time and a willingness to compromise.

Never underestimate the effect that this work can have on you, but the sense of pride you get in helping another human being out of their funk and into a happier, safer and more productive space should motivate and inspire you to do so.

Nobody wants to be the worst, most negative employee ever. Keep that in mind when someone is having a bad day and think about what you can do to help.