Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Transforming a Negative Environment

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on September 17, 2014.
Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a mid-level manager in human services, and support a twenty-one person staff. Nineteen of these team members have a professional approach to their work, manage their emotions appropriately, and are respectful to others. However, two team members are constantly negative, complaining, and disrespectful. I have addressed these behaviors with them, but they only improve for a little while before reverting back. I am continually amazed at how these two team members can negatively affect nineteen otherwise positive people. Over the years, I have seen this on other teams as well, where the negative member(s) adversely influence the positive members, even though the positive members are in the majority. Is there a reason that negativity trumps positivity?


Dear Discouraged,

Thanks for a winning question. Infectious negativity saps the vitality from far too many workplaces. Your final question is especially interesting to me: Why does negativity trump positivity?

I’ll describe several reasons for why negativity spreads and persists, as well as suggest a variety of solutions.

1. Negativity trumps positivity because humans are designed to be risk averse. This makes sense when you think about our survival instincts. Bad news signals danger and may require action. Danger signals are processed by the amygdala, the emotional part of our brain, instead of by the prefrontal cortex. These amygdala-mediated thoughts seize our attention and focus it on the danger. This is why even people who are normally positive pay more attention to negative than to positive information.

2. People pay attention to negative information because it violates the organization’s public relations bias. Most organizations and most leaders try to sugarcoat problems, hiding them from employees. The result is that employees are hungry for the truth—especially for the less-flattering truths they believe are being withheld from them. This means they pay special attention, and seriously consider, the negative information they hear—even when it comes from less-than-trustworthy sources.

Solution: The solution to these first two problems is to add more and more honest information to the pool. People who have questions and concerns will turn to darned near anyone for information. Make sure you are there first with honest answers.

3. Too many people count on others to speak up for them. They are too timid to speak up for themselves. The people who do speak up fall into two camps: those especially skilled at crucial conversations and those who aren’t. Those especially skilled folks know how to speak up in ways that are frank, honest, and respectful. Those who are especially unskilled are honest, but offensive, and may not even realize how negative they actually are.

Solution: Create opportunities and make it safer for people to raise questions and concerns. Don’t force the silent majority to rely on their least-skilled members to raise their concerns. In addition, train and coach the less-skilled communicators to be more skilled in how they raise their concerns—and direct them to raise their concerns with you.

4. The fourth reason that negativity spreads is different from the first three because it deals with a different kind of negativity: disrespectful behavior. When someone is disrespectful, others often respond with disrespect—tit for tat. As a result, disrespect becomes a poison that spreads quickly through a team.

Solution: Every team has informal/implicit norms for what constitutes respectful behavior. When disrespect is seen too often, it may be necessary to make these norms more formal and explicit. This may require a team meeting, a few crucial conversations, or an actual code of conduct. You’ll need to decide how explicit the norms need to be.

However, the key to success isn’t the norms, but how they are enforced. You need to achieve 200 percent accountability: Team members are 100 percent accountable for being respectful; they are also 100 percent accountable for others being respectful. This means that team members, not you, hold each other accountable. It may require some coaching or training, but it is essential. You, as the leader, can’t keep these norms alive. They must be enforced by the team members themselves.

5. Negativity is a habit that’s hard to break. We’ve all observed this unfortunate truth. People commit to stop complaining, rumor-mongering, or being disrespectful, but then fall back in to their old ways.

Solution: Use our CPR skills to make sure you frame the problem correctly. Here is an example.

Content: If the problem is a single incident, then address the content. The content includes the facts about what you expected and what you observed. For example, “When you have a concern or hear a rumor, I expect you to bring it to me, so I can deal with it in a productive way. I hear you shared a rumor this morning—as if it were true—with several team members without checking it out with me first. What happened?”

Pattern: If your chief concern is with the pattern of behaviors, then address the pattern. The pattern is that the person has made a commitment or promise, and has failed to live up to it. For example, “We’ve talked before about sharing rumors without checking them with me first. I thought I had your commitment to stop doing this. I hear you shared a rumor this morning. If my facts are right, then you broke your commitment to me. Help me understand.”

Relationship: If your chief concern involves trust or respect, then address the relationship. The relationship may need to change. For example, “When you make commitments to me and then fail to follow through on them, I begin to think I can’t trust you. And if I can’t trust you, I don’t see how I can have you on my team. Help me understand.”

I hope these ideas help you deal with the negativity that spreads in your workplace. Let me know how they work.

Good Luck,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

18 thoughts on “Transforming a Negative Environment”

  1. Asha Pereira (please do not publish my name)

    The timing of this response was PERFECT! I am NOT a manager, but work with a group of generally positive people. However, the negative few can change the entire culture, and seem to do this on a regular/daily basis. I am going to try these strategies because the same conversations are getting old. You have offered a different way to tackle a very common problem. Looking forward to having success!

    Thank you!

  2. Marty

    Good job Dave. You didn’t take the responsibility away from the manager, instead you made it easy for anyone to accept that the leader is responsible for creating and providing service to everyone on the team.

  3. BD

    “Negativity” aside, I find it more that a little disturbing that the message conveyed above is that employees are not allowed to have discussions with each other about negative issues without taking it to their supervisor first. What? Are we the thought police now? Has the first amendment been suspended? Let’s separate the issue of negativity and disrespect from the issue of open communications. If an employee has heard a negative rumor and chooses to discuss it (respectfully) with a colleague, why should(s)he have to take it to the boss first? For all the lip service paid to having “crucial conversations” it seems like what is being described here is censorship, not being positive and respectful.

    1. Rebecca

      This comment mirrored my thoughts. Censorship of the employees to discuss issues among themselves as a sounding board before going to the supervisor. So I think THAT part of the suggestion is bad advice.

      The topic seemed to be on three things, a negative attitude; complaining; and disrespectful. One may complain without doing either of the other two, and workers will complain to each other to just to vent especially if they feel they can’t take complaints to the boss.

      The solution to create opportunities for the others who don’t complain to do so was good. It is dangerous to assume that the other employees aren’t thinking the exact same thing as the ones who are vocal. Many times when I’ve brought up an issue in a meeting, no one else said a word, but AFTER they meeting several people came to me to say they had the same concern but didn’t know how to express it or were afraid to. Any specific suggestions for HOW to create those opportunities?

      1. Jeff Grigg

        I did not see the “taking it to their supervisor first” thing in the article, at first. But now I see it, in the example given:

        “We’ve talked before about sharing rumors without checking them with me first. I thought I had your commitment to stop doing this. I hear you shared a rumor this morning. If my facts are right, then you broke your commitment to me. …”

        Perhaps this is not the best or a most general example.

        (I can easily imagine myself giving responding negatively to such a statement. I find that I often disagree about “what we agreed to” — when it was much more of a lecture with veiled threats than a discussion — with no actual agreement. >;-> )

        Perhaps a more constructive example would have to be much more specific. Like, “John, I’ve overheard you saying that we selected this vendor to enrich the CIO who holds stock in them. That’s quite a serious accusation. If you have solid information to back that up, then we should take it to the legal department, and act on it. But the vendor selection was actually done by a special committee, with no direct input from the CIO. If you’d like to see their analysis and ranking of the vendors, I could show it to you, and anyone else who may be interested. Spreading rumors without factual basis can be quite a problem.”

  4. Peggy Berry (@PBerryRN)

    Communicate with respect to keep the person’s dignity in place but listen mindfully: they could be the only one brave enough to say what needs to be said. And yes, trust is important. Good blog.

  5. joel

    Very insightful and introspective.

  6. Transforming a Negative Environment | Emotional...

    […] Dear Crucial Skills, I am a mid-level manager in human services, and support a twenty-one person staff. Nineteen of these team members have a professional approach to their work, manage their emoti…  […]

  7. Ask @StartupCFO: How to avoid the "Oh shit" board meeting | BetaKit

    […] courtesy Crucial Skills […]

  8. geraldine uy

    Thank you ,it is very informative

  9. Jeff Grigg

    Related to this, I have observed a management anti-pattern to avoid: Don’t try to kill negative or misleading rumors by trying to kill the rumor mill at the source. I’ve seen some managers respond to rumors with “Who told you that?”, and trying to find the source(s) and stop them. No amount of punishing people will stop them from talking about things they think and may have heard. In an environment without transparent and easy access to good information, rumors flourish.

    Instead, overcome rumors and misleading information by broadcasting good information. If you are a consistent, reliable, and easily accessible source for known reliable information, then people will stop paying attention to the rumors. They’ll know where to go for the truth.

  10. David Rhodes

    Good article –
    Regarding #2 (“The solution to these first two problems is to add more and more honest information to the pool…”), I am reminded of the advice from Mary Ann Allison (Managing Up, Managing Down) :
    “Accurate information is a key part of motivation.”

  11. Bill Barr

    You mention “CPR skills”. I am having difficulty finding out what “CPR” means, besides cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

    1. David Rhodes

      Hi, Bill. check this bit from the archives: That’s an example of Content, Pattern, Relationship.

    2. Jeff Grigg

      “CPR—The three types of conversations that can be held around a particular issue:
      – Content (discussing the issue itself),
      – Pattern (discussing the problem that the issue keeps recurring), and
      – Relationship (discussing the fact that the issue is affecting your overall relationship with the other person).”

      in more detail:

  12. Leigh

    It is quite possible that 2 of the 21 are “on the money” – maybe there are legitimate reasons for their discontent. I can recall 15 to 20 years ago being 1 of 45 when arguing for my clients against bank, ummm, ….. Inadequacies? For those interested in what I was against, check out the “Financial Services Royal Commission” in Australia at the moment. Just maybe I was 1 against the whole industry!

  13. Transforming an undesirable Environment

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox