Never Empower or Try to Appease Negative People

When you have a negative person on one of your teams—they could be an employee or a board member or a manager—how do you deal with them?

If you’re like a lot of leaders, chances are you use one or more of the following strategies

  1. Endure their negativity because you believe you can change them
  2. Try to appease them by making concessions
  3. Temper your positions and language so as not to offend them
  4. Empower them by offering a position at the table (or worse, give them a promotion) to win them over
  5. Slow down the decision-making process in order to give them time to “get on board”. And/or
  6. Let them say what they want to say and not call them on their negative attitude and comments

As you read that list I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought, “Man, none of those sound very good.” And if that’s what you thought, you’re correct.

Whenever I work with leaders, I’m often amazed at how often and how long they’ll tolerate bad behavior and negative attitudes from those who are in their businesses or organizations. Whenever I start a consulting engagement with a business or organization, one of the first things I’ll do is have that owner or leader fill me in on their direct reports and have them give me a letter grade for each of them. Inevitably, one or more of those people are C, D or F employees (this also can happen with board members).

When I ask, “What are you going to do about that?” They hem and haw and eventually say something like, “I know, I need to do something.” Then after a month (or two or three or twelve 🙂 they’ll eventually end up firing that person. And soon after they do that they’ll say to me, “I know, I should have done that three years ago.”

For some reason there is a reluctance on the part of most leaders to deal with negative people right away. Why? Well, that’s a whole different post. But for today, let’s focus on the behaviors listed above that most leaders use because none of them work.

So, if you have a negative person on one of your teams, what should you do?

I. Confront the Negative Person’s Behavior Immediately

The only way negative people can continue to engage in negative behaviors is if you the leader allow them to. If they say something inappropriate in a meeting and you don’t intervene and immediately call them on that behavior, then you’ve failed your job as the leader.

So, what should you do? Well, here’s how I handle it in any group I’m leading. If Bob says something inappropriate (for example, something passive/aggressive or demeaning or deprecating or a personal attack or speaks at too high a volume), I don’t wait two seconds. I immediately say, “Time out. Bob, what you just said was out of line. So, two things. First, you need to apologize to Mary. And secondly, you need to reword what you just said in a way that doesn’t demean Mary but gets your point across. We’re peers here and as peers we respect one another.”

That rarely has to happen more than once before the negative person gets the idea that they can’t get away (in your organization) with what most other leaders have let them get away with for most of their lives.

Negative people are used to getting away with being negative because so few people are willing to stand up to them and say, “I don’t tolerate that kind of behavior here.”

In order for dysfunction to exist in a business or organization, a leader has to allow it to exist. But the work of a great leader is to always annihilate any negativity that gets in the way of the progress of that organization.

So, how are you doing at this? Do you immediately clamp down on negative people? Or do you avoid saying anything?

Note 1: If the behavior is committed in front of a group (or on a group email) then the confrontation should be done publicly. If not, confront the behavior privately.

Note 2: There is a huge difference between someone critiquing an idea or challenging an idea and someone being a negative person. The critiquer and the challenger are both people you want on your team. They’re the ones driving change and innovation or the ones helping you avoid a mistake. The negative person is the person with a chip on their shoulder who bashes people and ideas—not because they want to help move the organization forward—but because that’s their bent.

II. Refuse to Give Them Any Power

Appeasement doesn’t work. I watch this all the time. Leaders keep thinking that, “If I give this person a seat at the table (or if I give them a chance to speak their mind or if I put them on this project or this committee, etc.) then they’ll feel empowered and own the result.” However, as good and as positive as that sounds, it just doesn’t work.

Negative people are negative. Until that’s changed, no positional change will change their character. Instead, all that will happen is that you now will have given them an even greater platform to spread more of their negative influence—which usually means that

  • Good projects will get tabled
  • Good people will get discouraged (and often leave for a new position with a new company)
  • Decisions that could have been made in minutes will now take months (or years) to be made, and
  • Much of the success you and your business or organization could have achieved will be cut dramatically.

In other words, don’t try to appease them. There are no good outcomes from doing so. The impact on you, the rest of your team, your customers and your success isn’t worth it.

So, don’t give them any power.

III. Coach Them Whenever Possible

Most negative people like being negative. They’ve carved an identity around it for years and often take great joy in it. So, trying to coach them and help them to become a more positive person and a better team player is usually an exercise in futility.

However, there are some negative people who are open to coaching and to learning from a leader who will help them become a more positive person and a better team player. And for those who are, the key for you will be to help them overcome the beliefs that drive their negative behaviors.

Remember, our behaviors are driven by our beliefs. So you can’t change someone’s character or behaviors by simply asking them to do so. It doesn’t work that way. You’ll have to help them uncover why they think the way they think (Note: referring them to a professional to help them with this is often a wise option).

For example, if Bob grew up in a home where his parents yelled all the time when they didn’t get their way, Bob’s belief system will probably be something like, “When you disagree with someone, the way to get your way is to yell and demean them.” If you tell Bob, “Bob, you can’t yell at people,” that probably won’t work because Bob’s belief system (and experience) is that it does.

Which is why, as a coach, you have to help Bob uncover his belief and then help him develop a new belief, “Healthy adults don’t yell and demean other people to get their way. They have a respectful conversation and use logic and persuasion to get to the best possible solution—which may or may not be what they wanted in the first place.”

Change the belief, change the behavior.

IV. Eliminate Them When Necessary

Once you’ve tried the first three options, number four is your best option. Fire them (quickly). Ask them to leave the board (or committee or project team). Eliminate the position if necessary. But whatever you do, don’t try to hold on to them until …

For the past several decades I’ve watched businesses, organizations and churches held back and/or destroyed because of the impact of a negative person in a key position or role. The amount of time and damage they do to a team is unimaginable.

So don’t tolerate them. Once they’re gone, you’ll feel better. The rest of your team will feel better. In fact, they’ll probably tell you, “We’re so glad you let them go. We’ve been waiting for years for you to do that.” You’ll see the morale in your business take off. Your customers will be more happy. You’ll get more decisions made more quickly. You’ll get more projects completed. You’ll retain more A Players. You’ll generate more leads and sales. And you’ll be more profitable and productive—all because you finally let go of that person (or group of people) who have been holding your business back.

So, how should you deal with a negative person on your team?

  1. Confront their negative behavior IMMEDIATELY
  2. Refuse to give them any power
  3. Coach them whenever possible
  4. Eliminate them when necessary
If you follow those four ideas consistently, you’ll not only be a better leader—you and your business will be better because of them.

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some other ideas, make sure you add them to the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed)