Negativity - 11 November 2014
Generally, there are two types of negative people in the workplace.
The first represents employees whose negativity is quite harmless - it may be annoying and at times frustrating, but it's still relatively harmless. These are the pessimistic complainers who relentlessly spot flaws, but their negativity is thankfully limited to their disposition. There is even substantial empirical evidence to indicate that such workers (in small doses) might be good for organisations.
It’s the second type you really need to worry about. These are the people who act out on their negative tendencies. In some cases, they’ll sabotage projects. In others, they’ll refuse to follow instructions. They might steal, lie, harass – whatever the consequences, their intention is to create harm, either to colleagues or to the organisation.
So why would some employees be content with just appearing negative while others are satisfied only when they’re engaging in destructive behaviour? The answer can be gleaned from a new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
The researchers discovered that people who turn their negativity into harmful actions are distinguished by something known as moral disengagement. This is when they switch off their self-discipline and, most critically, their guilt. With neither censorship nor remorse, they’re free to wreak havoc without fearing the repercussions.
There are several ways they justify their behaviour. Some of them blame others. Some state they wouldn’t be so adversarial if their employer didn’t break promises. And then there are those who do it because they believe their co-workers are doing it, too. No matter their justification, they rationalise their behaviour by coming up with reasons why it’s okay.
The question for you becomes: how can you prevent moral disengagement from arising in your workplace? Here are some suggestions.
- Be ruthless: The minute you notice any employees turning their negativity into harmful behaviour, have a formal performance conversation immediately.
- Promote ethics: Many studies have proven that toxic cultures breed moral disengagement. So focus intensely on creating a team environment in which people feel it’s safe to speak up about ethical breaches and damaging actions.
- Interview carefully: When recruiting new employees, incorporate into your interview guide several questions that give you a sense of the candidate’s moral character.
- Provide training: Sometimes employees morally disengage because they don’t know any other way. By running training sessions on ethical standards, you increase not only their awareness but also that of their colleagues.
It can be difficult, and often impossible, for a leader to transform a negative employee into a positive one. You're instead best served directing your efforts towards those who turn their negativity into neg-activity.
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