Dear Crucial Skills,
Recently our company moved some services “offshore” BUT (proudly) we have been able to retain the jobs of all current employees. Unfortunately, there is one employee who appears extremely negative about this situation and has been sending “negative” e-mails about it. We want this attitude and negativity to stop because it seems to be influencing others.
How would this employee’s manager address the issue so that the right message is being sent? We want to send the proper message of firmness yet maintain openness within our team and organization. Whatever message we give to the individual will eventually (through the rumor mill) make it to the rest of the employees. We don’t want to say that employees are not allowed to voice their opinions; however, we want to stop the negativity. “Attitude” and “negative behavior” are hard to define and this is a high stakes issue.
Therefore, I want to be as effective as possible because I know that if the employee fails to change it could result in termination.
No More Sucker’s Choices
Dear No More,
You raise an interesting question: When does openness and honesty turn into complaining, creating rumors, being disloyal, and simply acting too negatively?
The answer lies in a mix of the other person’s intent and strategy.
First, intent: When people are genuinely concerned about a change in policy or a key decision and want to bring those concerns to the appropriate parties so they can be heard and resolved, their intent is pure. They aren’t trying to make others look bad or cause a riot or simply complain for the sake of complaining; they want to surface, discuss, and resolve a perceived problem. This is the whole idea behind dialogue. This is what you need to encourage and nurture.
My guess is that as you watch the other person in action, it is his or her intent that becomes suspect. If people continually return to the same issue, even after it’s been discussed and put to bed, then it would appear that they aren’t interested in discussing and resolving, they’re only interesting in getting exactly what they want–even if their desires simply can’t be met or would be wrong to meet.
This person’s strategy may also seem questionable. It is the strategy that you’re most likely to discuss since it translates into behavior (rather than merely thought), and it’s behavior that you can hold others accountable to.
Let’s assume that the person genuinely desires to discuss the issue in a healthy way. What is the best method or strategy for doing so? Using e-mails is hardly appropriate. If someone wants to use e-mail as a means of setting up a face-to-face meeting, that’s perfectly fine; but you can hardly discuss heated and controversial topics through e-mail.
Also, sending out messages to a lot of people (in effect, complaining about issues behind the decision makers’ backs) is not a healthy action and needs to be curtailed. In the spirit of honest dialogue, people need to take their concerns directly to the appropriate parties. This is the confrontation the person’s boss needs to hold.
I would start with the assumption that the other person doesn’t realize that what he or she is currently doing is both ineffective and problematic. Begin the conversation by clarifying the best method for dealing with the issues this person has. Explain that it has come to your attention that he or she is concerned with what is going on. You’re glad that he or she is willing to vocalize these concerns, and you’d like to help come up with a method that would be more effective. Point out that the concerns need to be brought to the right parties, and talked about face-to-face and openly, and that you’d be glad to help set up just such a meeting. If you are the appropriate party to discuss the issues with, invite this person to discuss them with you.
Now here’s where it gets dicey. Explain that sending out e-mails to several people who can’t resolve the problem, or sending messages that don’t lead to healthy discussions only creates frustration and resentment. Make it clear that doing so again would be inappropriate and that you’re counting on this person to come to you directly the next time he or she has an issue. Explain that you’re assuming that he or she was unaware that sending out general complaints to several people is neither the best way nor an acceptable method for solving problems, and that doing so again would constitute a break of protocol.
Finally, move to a healthy discussion of the person’s concerns. Make it safe for him or her to share worries and why they exist. If this person has issues and doubts, it’s likely that others do as well and you need to hear and address them whenever you can.
A parting thought–you’ll notice that I never use the word “negativity.” Although it might feel as if the person is being too negative, this is just a vague enough concept that it isn’t likely to inform as much as it is likely to inflame. The other person is sure to conclude that you have chosen to label his or her legitimate concerns as “negative,” and that will feel manipulative and unfair.