You’re coping with a ridiculous workload, struggling to make the right choices about prioritization, and dealing with perpetual change in your organization. You manage to get on with it, but one of your coworkers can’t seem to do anything but whine and complain.
What can you do when your colleague is always negative about change?
What Not to Do
Let’s start with the old adage, “first do no harm.” Try eliminating these things you’re doing that are inadvertently making your teammate’s resistance worse.
Ignore and Invalidate
I’m guilty of doing this to people who are annoying me. I avoid making eye contact and display a wide range of other cues that I’m not interested in them or their concerns. The problem is that most people desperately want to feel heard and understood so, each time you turn away from them, they get more desperate.
Ignoring a desperate person will make them more desperate.
You don’t want to be a jerk or to tell the person to their face that they’re making you stark raving nuts with the constant negativity. Instead, you vent your frustration about the person behind their back or you become sarcastic or dismissive to their face. This isn’t going to change your teammate for the better but it’s certainly change you for the worse.
Passive-aggressiveness will ruin your reputation without making anything better.
Add Fuel to the Fire
It’s also possible that you empathize with your colleague’s concerns and make the mistake of encouraging their negativity. Unfortunately, if you start to commiserate, you’ll just stoke their resistance and have an increasingly negative colleague to deal with. You’ll also start to pay attention to less favorable information and impact your own perceptions of the change.
While empathizing with a negative coworker is helpful, sympathizing with them just makes your life miserable.
What You Can Try
Once you’ve stopped making things worse, try these approaches to make things better.
Validate the Person
When you’re on the receiving end of a colleague’s negativity, look them straight in the eye and repeat back to them what you hear, “You don’t think this change is going to work.” The purpose is not to agree with them, it’s simply to make it clear that they have been heard.
Help them Identify the Issue
Once you have engaged with your colleague, ask a few questions to get to the root issue for them. You can try one of these questions to get beneath the surface…“I get that you don’t think this will work….
…What aspects of the change are you most worried about?”
…How do you see it playing out?”
…What are the biggest risks you’re concerned about?”
…What does this change mean for you?”
As you hear the answers to these questions, you’ll start to understand what’s beneath their negativity. Are they simply exhausted by the perpetual change? Are they concerned that they are gradually becoming antiquated and won’t have a job for long? Are they feeling they need to advocate for a stakeholder group that they believe is disadvantaged by the change (e.g., employees, customers, etc.)?
Once you get a whiff of the real issue, try reflecting that back, “I get the sense you’re worried about how this will impact our customers. Is that fair?”
Create a Game Plan
Once you understand what is beneath your colleague’s negativity, see if you can help them come up with a plan to make things better. Don’t take ownership of the issue for them, but guide and coach and question them to reframe the situation into one where they have some control.
For example, if your earlier questioning exposed that your colleague is worried about the impact the change will have on his customers, you could ask, “What could you do to make it less likely that this will impact your customers?”
Choose a Conversation Starter
Once you’ve made the investment in trying to help your colleague address their negativity, don’t allow the conversation to backslide. Instead, have a go-to question that you will use each time you encounter them.
If your conversation was focused on mitigating the risk of customer complaints, you could ask, “What have you tried in your customers conversations that has worked?” If the person starts to answer a different question, bring them back, “Nope, wait. I asked what has worked.”
If it’s not working and you’re still getting the negativity, provide feedback about how their negativity is affecting you. “Bob, we are four weeks into this change and each day you’re telling me that it won’t work. I’m getting frustrated because I have lots of my plate making it work. How could you make our conversations more positive?”
If listening, coaching, and encouraging your negative teammate doesn’t lift the cloud over their head and providing feedback doesn’t help them see the damage it’s doing to your relationship, your last resort is to spend as little time around them as possible.
If you’re stuck in a meeting with the person when they start complaining, turn to the people who are more positive. Give them your attention and your energy. If you’re in the lunch room and the conversation goes back to the futile negativity, excuse yourself.
There’s only so much you can do to be helpful, then it’s time to protect yourself from the impact of a negative colleague.
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