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How to Successfully Handle Your Most Toxic Employee

There are less-awkward ways to address that person on your team who pokes holes in everything.

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BY Alyse Kalish - 14 Feb 2019

how to handle toxic employee

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You've seen it happen before: One of your direct reports has suddenly (or maybe not so suddenly) become a nuisance. In meetings, they're rejecting good ideas and putting down bad ones. Or they're constantly complaining about their work or someone else or some company initiative. Or they never seem to see the positive in what you're working on as a team.

"I like to call these people the 'Naysayers,'" says Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker, professor of human behavior at Hunter College, and performance and career coach on The Muse. "That person who always pokes holes in everything, always kind of has a bad attitude, and points out why things are not going to work."

I like to call these people the 'Naysayers.' That person who always pokes holes in everything, always kind of has a bad attitude, and points out why things are not going to work. --Melody Wilding

Everyone's crossed paths with a negative employee--someone who always seems to be in a bad mood, who's not being productive, and who's difficult to work with, whether because they say no to everything or because their pessimism brings down everyone around them.

This kind of attitude can be disruptive and destructive for any team dynamic, affecting how the person's co-workers stay focused, motivated, and happy at work. Plus, it doesn't exactly help with getting stuff done, either.

It can be incredibly infuriating to manage a negative employee's behavior--and as their boss, you may have the urge to let it go and hope the person just quits, or the situation eventually gets better on its own. But trust me, it won't.

So how can you handle this type of person calmly and professionally? Here's what the experts have to say about dealing with negative employees.

Look Inward First (and Check Your Biases)

Before making any sort of assumptions, take some time to reflect on who this person is, what it is about them that's coming across as negative, and--this is where you've got to really dig in and be honest with yourself--what role you might be playing in their perceived misery.

"A lot of times people will say someone's negative, but my first question is, 'So what does that mean?'" says Stacey Gordon, a diversity, inclusion, and career strategist who's also a career coach on The Muse. Is it what they're saying that's negative, or how they're saying it? The former could be someone who's truly negative, but the latter could just be a miscommunication issue or communication style divide. Check your biases to see if you're judging this person based on how they deliver their feedback in a way that's different than you do--rather than the feedback itself.

It could be that they're behaving in a certain way that you may not approve of, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're a destructive or bad employee. It just means that you haven't properly defined standards with your team. --Stacey Gordon

For example, they might tell you they don't want to take on a specific project. But are they explaining why and bringing up valid points? If the answer's yes, they're not necessarily being negative--blunt and inflexible, maybe, but at least they're basing their reaction in facts.

Also consider how you've behaved as a boss before putting all the fault on them. As Gordon points out, "it could be that they're behaving in a certain way that you may not approve of, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're a destructive or bad employee. It just means that you haven't properly defined standards with your team." Translation: Maybe they're choosing to act this way because no one's told them they can't.

Don't Be Part of the Problem

As the boss, you're also responsible for not adding to the negative vibe. Sure, your employee may be frustrating and headache-inducing, but you don't want to stoop to their level by pointing fingers, going negative, or talking badly about them behind their back. As Gordon notes, if other team members catch wind of what you're saying, they'll wonder if you think and say the same things about them. That's a quick way to lose trust with the rest of your team.

Overall, she says, "it's really easy to jump on the bandwagon of, 'Oh, this person's awful' and really not manage them the same way you would manage other people. [But] you have to check that and remind yourself that you have to manage everyone equally."

Gather Your Facts

Whether the person is being deliberately destructive or there's simply a mismatch in communication styles, at some point a deeper conversation is in order. To prep, you'll want to get very clear on what's been happening.

Think about how the person's negativity presents itself. Where and in what context do they tend to act negatively? Are you seeing it firsthand, or did it come to your attention because other people you manage brought it up to you? Or are you overhearing people talk about it behind closed doors or through the rumor mill?

If it's something other people are pointing out, it's worth pulling those individuals aside to get their perspective--without asking them to tattle or talk negatively about their colleague, of course. Rather, Gordon suggests taking the approach of, "I'm just checking in with everyone to make sure that everyone's working well together. Are there any issues with the team that you want to address? Or is there anything I can help with as your manager?"

If you're actually observing the negativity yourself, start jotting down those moments--where it happens, when it happens, and what exactly was negative about their behavior. For example, if they're always shooting down other people's ideas in meetings, start noting not just when it happens, but what they say, how they say it, and how they act--if you ask them to explain why they don't like someone else's idea, do they have a reasonable explanation or alternative solution or do they shrug off your question or roll their eyes?

When you're working with facts, your case is more airtight and you can feel more confident addressing the issue head-on. "You can say, 'In this meeting on January 3, I asked for this information, and rather than you provide me with results all I got was all the reasons you couldn't do it,'" says Gordon.

Deliver Specific Feedback

Now, the tough part: sitting the person down to talk through their behavior and give feedback.

The first step in this conversation is to set the boundaries for how you'd like your team to work together--not to jump on them with comments such as: "You're doing this and not doing that." Instead, focus on what is allowed (giving constructive feedback, asking questions) and what isn't (blaming others, shooting down ideas without offering solutions).

It's up to you to make an explicit request of what you would like to see changed going forward. --Melody Wilding

Then, "it's up to you to make an explicit request of what you would like to see changed going forward," says Wilding, a licensed social worker and performance coach. She suggests using the "Situation, Behavior, Impact" method: describe the situation, outline their actions and behavior, and explain how those actions affected yourself and others.

For example:

"In our email thread about switching vendors, you replied to the whole group that you disagreed with the pricing. By phrasing it the way you did, it seemed like you were casting blame on your teammates and it sent the group into a lot of unproductive back-and-forth about whether we had to completely rethink the packaging. Since everyone has worked incredibly hard to work through this change, I would have loved to see you offer a more constructive and kinder response so we can work as a team to solve this issue, rather than put each other down. A different way to frame it could be: 'I know we put a lot of work into our pricing strategy but I'm concerned about X for Y reason. Can we talk through as a group how we can work through that?'"

But you shouldn't just be lecturing them--you should also be asking probing questions to understand their perspective. You want to get to the root of why they're acting this way, and figure out if there's anything you can do as their boss to improve the situation. Try open-ended (not "yes/no") questions such as "How are you feeling about [relevant issue]" or "What aspects of your job are you finding most frustrating/most exciting right now?" and follow up with "Why?" or "Tell me more."

The key is not merely giving them an outlet to air their complaints, but encouraging them to be optimistic and forward-thinking. Ask them what isworking for them, and what they would change for the better if they could.

"When people feel supported and like they're being heard, then they're going to be a lot less defensive," says Gordon.

That said, stand your ground when it comes to what you expect from your employees--and emphasize that you won't continue to condone this kind of behavior going forward. If the situation is more serious, consider whether or not they need to be put on a formal performance improvement plan.

Let Everyone's Voice Be Heard

In group settings, one powerful way to address negativity is to allow the naysayer to be heard--but give others a chance to weigh in, too.

"In the moment, it's always important as a leader that people are looking to you to establish the terms of the team," says Wilding. Since you want to establish that showing respect for other people's opinions is important, you should to acknowledge that you hear the naysayer's perspective and are willing to address it, even if you may not share it. This can be as simple as saying, in response to a negative comment, "I understand your concerns--let me talk through them and allow you to ask some follow-up questions at the end." Or, again, turn the tables on them by asking for suggestions and ideas.

Then, Wilding suggests, go ahead and invite the opinions of other people. Remember: You don't have to agree with what the person is saying, and chances are other people don't, either. Let those people chime in and quiet the negativity. Try saying something like, "Hey, what does everyone else think about this?" or "Does anyone have another opinion on this?" One person shouldn't overpower the whole, and when you're the kind of boss that weighs everyone's opinions equally, you ultimately come out on top.

Check in Regularly

Hopefully at this point you've gotten the person to a better place by understanding their concerns and talking through solutions. But it can be really easy for a negative person to fall back into old habits without clear boundaries.

"The best managers are keeping tabs on their employees' wellbeing and checking in," says Wilding. This means scheduling regular one-on-one meetings and using that time not just to talk shop but to understand how your employees are feeling about their workload, their goals, and the team dynamic, and to give positive encouragement and feedback. And, you should be consistently asking, "How can I help?" or "What do you need from me to be successful?"

The best managers are keeping tabs on their employees' wellbeing and checking in. --Melody Wilding

Besides keeping a reformed naysayer on track, these proactive check-ins are a good way to prevent negativity with all your team members way before it starts.

"If you spot a pattern among people on the team, that's when it's probably time to do something" or revisit how you work together, Wilding adds.

It's certainly no walk in the park to motivate a negative employee to improve their behavior, but it is your job as the boss to create a culture that's productive, positive, and collaborative. It may be that after all of this, you'll decide the person isn't the right fit for your team, or they'll decide themself that they'd be happier somewhere else--but at least you'll know you tried.

--This post originally appeared on The Muse.

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