How to Manage a Relentlessly Negative Employee

A reader asks: 

I have an employee who is very negative. For instance, when other departments make mistakes, she becomes intensely frustrated and immediately accuses them of not doing their jobs. She also keeps score; if we need to do something extra to help another department, she asks why we should help them when they can’t do X,Y,Z. And she speaks negatively about other departments to her own employees, and isn’t helpful to me in trying to improve things because she’s so focused on being angry.

She isn’t wrong when she complains about the failings of other departments. But they aren’t being malicious, it’s just a struggle to find common ground because we all have different needs. I feel like that’s a pretty common theme at work and I need her to tone down the negative a little.

Normally I’d talk specifics, I’d tell her how I need her to behave, I’d try to help her work through the process problems causing the errors, and I’d set up consequences for bad behavior. Thing is, there is no ultimate consequence because she’s not going to be let go. I can’t even begin to describe the dysfunction related to this, but it’s a fact, at least for now. Despite this, I have to speak to her about the problem, because I can’t do nothing. But she’s so buried in negativity that I don’t think she’s even capable of being objective anymore. Is there a way to talk to an employee like this?

Well, here’s the thing: You can try all sorts of strategies with her, but at the end of it all, you need to have the authority to set and enforce consequences. And if you don’t have that, you at least need her to think that you do. You haven’t explained why that’s not possible here, but without that authority, you can’t do your job, and whoever has put you in that position is cutting you off at the knees.

That said, you can try talking to her and see what happens. Try this:

* Be clear about your expectations and how she is falling short of them. Explain that the complaining has gotten out of hand, and that you need the person in her role to get along well with and be helpful to other departments and to minimize drama, not create it. And state clearly that the complaining needs to be dramatically scaled back (if not stopped completely) and replaced with a more helpful and accommodating approach to work and to her colleagues. Be sure to add that complaining to her own staff is 100% unacceptable — and so far afield from what a manager should do that she’s jeopardizing your confidence in her ability to manage.

* Be clear that the concern is a serious one. Your words and your tone should convey that this is a serious problem that will damage her career if it’s not fixed.

* Be clear that fixing this is a job requirement. Present this as a performance issue like anything else; it is part of her job to be pleasant and helpful to others, whether she’s feeling pleasant or not – and choosing not to is no more acceptable than deciding she’s not going to do some other crucial part of her job.

* Talk about consequences. I know you can’t let her go, but you should certainly be able to tell her that these issues will impact your assessment of her  performance (and thus her formal evaluation), her potential for raises, the types of assignments she gets, and her reputation in and outside the company.

But at the end of the day, if she doesn’t respond to this, you’ll need to talk to whoever is standing in the way of you letting her go. You need to explain the damage she’s causing – particularly to her own staff members, who are surely being impacted by this – and the opportunity cost of keeping her in the role without significant improvement.



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  • Dianne Crampton

    So the question that leaves me pondering the wisdom here is whether the process problem was fixed. Relentless whining is often caused by poor business processes. I would have added bringing her into the process solution as one of the problem solvers. Sure, shut up and be quiet is a nice mantra. Fire her and hire someone else. That doesn’t fix the process and could explain high turn over in positions where management has fallen short of their own responsibilities.

    • The thing is, though, that a good employee isn’t going to handle a problem like this. They will speak up, absolutely, and they will suggest solutions if they can, but they will not harp on things relentlessly and become “buried in negativity,” as the letter writer describes here. Instead, they’ll be more clear-eyed about it and not make the atmosphere around them toxic like this one seems to be doing.

  • Dianne Crampton

    It is still a process issue that is not being addressed in this article.

  • Cliff

    Greg Karoly suggests interrupting (her) the behavior with questions. Asking directional questions about the process and failures puts the ownership of a solution back in the complainer’s hands. She may have good ideas or not, but once she’s involved she is less likely to be so unproductively critical.

    • Yeah, I think part of the problem is that she’s complaining about another department, which the manager presumably doesn’t have much control over.

  • thesultan

    i dont understand

    she is feeling this negative energy because of lack of professional from the other department. why focusing on solving this small problem rather than focusing on the real problem (witch is the business process, other department mistakes) even if you fire her the next guy might come also and feel bad because he needs to work with others mistakes and still make good business and feel happy and positive about it.

    i don’t get it. i think this manager should stood up and make a meeting with other head departments and put a process or build a system that gives minimum amount of someone having to fix others problem everyone should hand over his responsibilities with minimum or no mistakes at all.

    i work in a medical devise company as a service engineer sometimes sales people sell equipment’s without informing us until the devilry day so we start running here and there . also sometimes without proper manuals. and then our manager force us to work this and fix these issues by our self. off course i will feel frustrated because all this could be fixed if our manager had the balls to sit with sales manager and say “look i will not take any uncompleted works from you until you give us all the needed things to get the job done properly” yet they come to us and say we are negative employees and we should be more positive??????????

    even if we become positive about this unprofessional behavior it is not good for the company on the long run.

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  • Stephanie

    I have a supervisor who behaves exactly this way. Unfortunately, her superiors are both on leave, so there is no one to take action or provide consequences. Her negativity is very draining and I find myself going home in a horrible mood because of all of her complaints and anger. I’ve tried to talk to her and meet her half way, but she’s so upset she’s incapable of being rational. How do you advise to work with a negative and complaining supervisor who has lost all objectivity and rationality, and doesn’t have any superiors to provide consequences?

    • If she’s your manager, there’s not a lot you can beyond what you’ve tried. You’ve talked to her and gotten nowhere, so at this point I’d focus on whether you can find ways to reasonably content, knowing that at least for now she’s part of the package with this job. I know that sucks — managers have a huge impact on people’s quality of life at work, which is why it’s so important to screen for a good one during the hiring process! (Not that that’s a perfect process.)