loved the title of “Mr. Negative.” He was proud of being smarter than
anyone else and thought his put-downs were funny. No matter what you
said, he would disagree, counter it or top it. His personal attacks,
sarcasm and cutting remarks could bring most people to tears. He could
create a tense, hostile workplace in minutes.
He could bring a brainstorming or planning meeting to a halt by finding
fault with every suggestion or plan, and proving that nothing would
work. He was convinced that his predictions were accurate and more
valuable to the team than the frustration and anger he created. On his
team, sick-leave and turnover were high, while morale, camaraderie and
teamwork were low. Productivity was also low because most people wasted
a huge percent of their time talking about Carl’s latest exploits.
What can you do?
In this case, his manager had heard me present “How to Eliminate the High Cost of Low Attitudes”
at a conference, and had brought me in as a consultant. She wanted me
to help her create a culture that would be professional, retain high
quality staff and be much more productive.
Why did his manager, Jane, bring me in, instead of simply evaluating
Carl honestly and having consequences leading to demotion and eventual
termination if he didn’t change? Jane thought that:
- Carl was bright and expert enough in his specialty that she was afraid of losing him.
- If she was a good enough manager and learned to say the magic words, Carl would straighten out.
- Her hands were tied because Carl was a long-term employee in a government organization.
Jane see that she was victimizing the rest of the team by giving in to
her fears and helplessness. Carl was verbally abusive and emotionally
intimidating. And he was subtly manipulative because he had a soft
voice and a smile on his face while he sarcastically cut his co-workers
to ribbons. She saw that if she continued to give in to her fear of
losing Carl, she’d lose her reputation and position because her team
would mutiny or quit.
Despite these insights, Jane remained a conflict-avoidant manager. She would allow the team to act, but she wouldn’t lead the way. Therefore we worked around her.
I helped the team create a set of behavioral expectations for
individual professional interactions and for team meetings. It was no
surprise that the list did not included any of Carl’s behaviors, that
his behaviors were specifically prohibited and that the list of
appropriate behaviors contained the opposite ones Carl had been bullying
The rest of the team voted to accept the code of professional
behavior. Carl said he’d sign but he wouldn’t change his behavior.
He’d been Mr. Negativity as long as he could remember and didn’t think
he could change.
That seemed like an impasse. No one wanted to waste a lifetime
waiting for Carl to go through therapy, especially since he didn’t want
to change anyway. I helped the team realize that Carl had no reason to
change. There were no adverse consequences to him if he kept doing what
he was doing. The team needed some leverage.
Since the manager wouldn’t act on her own, the rest of the team took a
bold step. They told Carl that they wouldn’t tolerate his hostility
and the tension it caused. They said that they’d remove him immediately
from any meeting in which he started his negative putdowns. He laughed
nervously, thinking they’d never really do that. He still wouldn’t
accept that his behavior was so hurtful and despised.
At the next meeting, of course, Carl was negative as usual. He was
shocked when the rest of the team immediately stood up and told him to
leave. He sheepishly did, with a parting shot that they’d never come up
with a good plan without him.
He was wrong. They did develop a good plan to deal with the problem
they’d been working on. They also gave him his assignment within it.
They told him that people who weren’t at meetings must be happy with the
tasks assigned to them. Carl was outraged and protested. He looked
for support from anyone on the team, but everyone was against him. That
also stunned him. They told him that they were following the team’s
behavior code. He could play according to the rules and take what he
got or leave. They also told him that he could be very likeable when he
wanted to and they’d be glad to be on a team with the “likeable Carl.”
It took two more meetings at which Carl was asked to leave, before he
began to change. It was amazing to all of them, including Carl, that
what he thought was a life-long pattern, changed when enough leverage
was applied. He really did like what he did and he also had wanted to
This example is over the top in many ways. But I have a question for
you: Did the rest of the team bully Carl or were they right in voting
him off their island when he was an abusive bully?
One general lesson here is: “When the legitimate authority won’t act
and, therefore, leaves a power vacuum, the most hostile and power-hungry
people usually fill it. Your task is to fill it with the best behavior
There are many other ways to solve the problems that
the Carl’s of the world cause at work and at home. A stronger manager
would have done it by herself. Jane obviously had problems as a manager
and wouldn't step outside her comfort zone to solve them. Her boss
soon took appropriate action.
It’s also a different matter if the negative person is the manager or
boss. There are many other problem behaviors that can be resolved with
the Behavioral Code approach. In other blog posts I’ll cover those bullying situations at work.
Please tell me your story so I can be sure to respond to it.
The best way to stop harassment, negativity and bullying, and to retain your highest quality employees is to hire Dr. Ben for personalized coaching and organizational consulting.
Design and implement an effective plan that eliminates the high cost of low attitudes. To get the help you need, call Ben at 1-877-828-5543.