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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Managing a Negative Influencer

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have an employee who makes negative comments and tries to undermine leadership. She is a great teacher, but she creates a toxic environment with our staff, and she has a strong influence on them. How can I handle this behavior?

Seeking Suggestions

Hi Seeking,

I’m going to outline a few steps you can follow before you speak with your employee, while you speak with her, and after you speak with her.

Before we dive in, though, I’m wondering whether it’s your employee’s position you find negative and undermining, or how she expresses it. I think it’s important you clarify this for yourself before you talk with her. It’s one thing to discourage sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness, for example, and quite another to discourage disagreement with management.

I’m going to assume that the problem is the way she disagrees rather than that she does. If this is true, her behavior may be the result of not feeling safe or not having the skills. The good news is you have an opportunity to make it clear you welcome differing viewpoints and demonstrate how to express them.

Before You Talk

Before you approach your employee, there are two things you can do that will greatly increase the odds of having an effective conversation: (1) master your stories and (2) gather some facts.

To master your stories is to suspend your judgment. For starters, your question reveals a story. You say that your employee makes “negative” comments, tries to “undermine” leadership, and creates a “toxic” environment. These are conclusions. They’re your judgments of her behavior.

If you go into the conversation with these conclusions at the forefront, you’re likely to provoke a defense.

Instead, identify the concrete behaviors you find problematic, and narrow down a few examples or incidents.

For example, did she say something in a meeting that challenged a leader’s decision? What was it? When was that meeting? And what exactly did her peers say or do that led you to believe she influenced them?

Make a list of a few incidents or exchanges and gather as much data about these as you can—what was said or done, tangible outcomes or consequences, and so on. This list will be valuable when you talk.

After you’ve clarified the facts surrounding the behavior, ask yourself this: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do or say these things? Is there some other possible explanation for her behavior?

The point is not to conjecture what her motives might be, but simply to recognize there are other possible explanations. If you do this sincerely, you should find yourself thinking, “Ok, maybe she has good reasons and I just don’t know what they are.”

That said, just because we draw conclusions doesn’t mean we are always wrong in them. Maybe your employee does want to undermine leadership. All the more reason to have an open conversation.

While You Talk

When you talk, do so one on one at a scheduled time. Don’t corner her at the printer or call her out during a meeting.

In the first few seconds of your conversation, make it safe and state your purpose. For example, “I want you to know that I value your contributions here, and everyone on the team looks up to you. I’ve also noticed some things that concern me, and I want to share my perspective and get your perspective on the matter.”

Don’t try to flatter her here, but find something true and positive to say to convey your respect.

Then share the facts you gathered. “Last week during our team meeting, I shared the quarterly goal that executive leadership has outlined. You then said ________ in what seemed like sarcasm. Then others started complaining and venting, rather than communicating concerns. The meeting never got back on track.”

Try to be specific. As you talk, do so with humility.

After you’ve shared the facts, share your interpretation of them. “I feel like some of your comments are belittling to me and other managers, and I’m starting to wonder if you don’t respect us. Maybe you doubt our competence. And perhaps you don’t intend this, but I feel your actions diminish my credibility with the team.”

Then seek her input. “I’d like to know where you’re coming from. How do you see it?”

And listen.

Your goal during this conversation should be to gather meaning, to simply get talking. Don’t try to resolve the disagreement just yet.

In fact, you may discover that you don’t have a disagreement, but rather a misunderstanding. A person’s behavior can take on entirely new meaning when we discover their reasons for it. Annoyance, frustration, and fear can quickly turn to tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.

If you do find yourself at odds, however, there are a handful of skills you can employ. To keep this article brief, I’ll link to a few rather than expound on them here. You can describe the gap between your employee’s behavior and your expectations, seek mutual purpose, and highlight natural consequences to her behavior. These skills can help you explore solutions and reach alignment.

After You Talk

Whether you uncover a simple misunderstanding or a difference in viewpoints, make it a point to stay in dialogue and check in regularly. You might conclude your initial conversation, “Well, I can appreciate where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m not sure yet what to do about our different approaches, but I would like to keep talking about this. Let’s meet again next week. I’ll come prepared with a few ideas we can discuss.”

Or you might clarify a few expectations and ask your employee to work on certain behaviors. Either way, when you check in, check in. Don’t check up. Try to support your employee to adopt or develop expected behaviors. Think about how you can enable rather than persuade her. I know of a couple courses that teach excellent skills.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

14 thoughts on “Managing a Negative Influencer”

  1. John Henry

    Decades ago, I worked at a company whose values were that every employee is valuable and the company (i.e., management) needed to make *every* effort to find out how and where people could bloom. That’s no longer the case at that company, nor is it in vogue elsewhere; there is less and less courtesy and concern for employees the further down in the organization chart they are (the bottom tiers are an ‘ablative shield’ protecting the jobs and incomes of the most senior management in difficult times). I appreciate the advice and perspective but I worry that supervisors, in particular, are spread too thin (with 20-50 direct reports) that they do not have the time, energy, motivation, or support to take a kinder, gentler approach given that there is precious little ‘top-cover’ provided by their management. Every two weeks, at payday, it is an implicit “what have you done for me lately”, so it is no wonder that there is little corporate loyalty from employees, which incubates dissatisfaction and ultimately, troublemaking (even at multiple levels within the organization).

  2. Nellie Negative

    “After you’ve clarified the facts surrounding the behavior, ask yourself this: Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do or say these things? Is there some other possible explanation for her behavior?”. This. Perhaps the leader isn’t supportive of reasonable business needs or isn’t following though on agreed upon actions. The leader sets the tone for the organization.

    1. Sue Hamilton

      Or the manager makes quick and uninformed decisions that impact the team in a way he does not fully understand or appreciate.

  3. Lori

    Hello — I appreciate this approach and I think if its part of a leader’s everyday behaviours it can avoid huge blows up that take more time to address team functioning or to replace employees. I question a sentence in the last paragraph “support the employee to adopt or develop expected behaviours”. This makes me think of command and control leadership which the rest of the article was not about. The way I read it, the article suggests it is up to the employee to self regulate and be aware of their influence rather than determine the “expected” behaviours. The way I interpret that sentence is that the leader will specify the “expected behaviours”. Then I conclude that the work of the dialogue is less effective.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Thanks, Lori. I see what you’re saying, and that’s not the meaning I intended. The key word in that sentence is support. I think it’s ok for leaders to specify expected behaviors; all organizations have standards. But there’s an opportunity in how they communicate and uphold them. Hopefully it’s clear from the rest of the article and our other material that we teach a supportive and enabling communication model, not a controlling or coercive one.

  4. Eliot N. Mostow

    Nicely written. Thanks. Easier said than done, but practice makes….not perfect, but easier then next time I think. the other issue I know I face is the time it takes to gather my thoughts & facts while also knowing that delay carries so much potential for problems

  5. mcw

    I think there is another off shoot that may be influencing this situation and that is how each deals with expectations. We use Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies to help leaders and staffs understand how we process and handle expectations differently. My guess is this supervisor and the majority of staff are likely to be Obligers. This means they put external expectations before their own and when an external directive is given they nod, agree and do it. The “negative influencer” may not be a negative influencer at all – this person may be a Questioner. A Questioner makes all expectations (internal & external) internal expectations. They question and challenge the expectation until their questions are answered and once that is met, the Questioner follows through on the expectation. Questioners are much lower in numbers than Obligers – it can seem to Obligers that Questioners are negative, insubordinate, etc. when they don’t understand the Questioners need for those questions to be answered. Questioners are equally valuable to the staff because they will not blindly follow and they make staffs stretch and grow. (fyi – the other two tendencies are Upholders and Rebels). I think exploring this issue while using the above CC method might make a lot of lightbulbs go off.

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Interesting. I hadn’t heard of Gretchen Rubin. Thanks for the tip.

  6. ANW

    Wow! I felt like my manager wrote this about me! Thank you for advising that the manager check their own stories and conclusions first. I feel misunderstood and unheard most of the time. From the standpoint of a report, I can also use the advise in this article when communicating with my manager.

  7. Syeda Rizvi

    I am not employed in a company. I am a mother of 3 very successful daughters who have broken the glass ceiling in America. Just to make it simple I would like to say that I had a big role to play in their success. I broke away from an abusive relationship eons ago. It took me twenty years to finally enter the US on an I 20 student visa and my daughters on Fi.
    I come from a South Asian background so the culture does not give a voice to women.
    I was able to break away hence my daughters have a voice in a man’s world. The crucial conversations I have with them is their total disregard of me as being of any importance. It has damaged me greatly. Emotionally I have cut myself off from them. I want to have a better relationship with them but have never been successful. Are there any suggestions you can give me to help break barriers and create civility in our communication. Much appreciated. Happy holidays and a safe healthy and successful 2022. 🙏🏻✅🎄

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Hi Syeda, there are few options. Currently, you can attend a virtual course or an on-demand course. You can also pick up a copy of the book. If you have any questions, send us a message.

  8. Mohamed

    Thank you Ryan 😊

  9. Managing a Negative Influencer
  10. Lorie Buenviaje

    The most common mishap is failing to indicate the sponsorship

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