So, you’re busy trying to get on with the next in line of never-ending changes in your organization but you’ve got THAT person on your team: The person who moans and complains at every request and drones on about how horrible everything is. First of all, I’m sorry you have to deal with that. Second, here are a few new things to try that might help you cope with your change resistant colleague.
What Not to Do
Let’s start with the things you might be doing today that could be making the situation a whole lot worse.
Ignoring and invalidating the person. I’m guilty of doing this to people who are annoying me. I avoid making eye contact and send subtle cues that I’m not interested in 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. At least at first, don’t ignore your negative colleague.
Being passive-aggressive. Many people tend to be passive-aggressive in response to a negative teammate. They gossip and complain about the person behind their back or even take out their frustrations by becoming sarcastic or dismissive to their face. Passive-aggressiveness will ruin your reputation without making anything better. Don’t make that mistake.
Adding 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 might start being perceived as negative by others.
What You Can Try
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 what is upsetting them. 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?”
Test out 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 a risk your colleague is worried about, you could ask, “What could you do to make it less likely that this will impact our customers?”
Create a positive 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 customer conversations that has worked?” If the person starts to answer a different question, bring them back, “Nope, wait. I asked what has worked.”
Provide feedback about their impact. 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 trying to make 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 lunchroom 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.