Lead your organization out of negativity

As a leader, you likely devote a significant amount of time and effort painstakingly setting the right direction and tone for your organization. Yet, time and again, when you seek to engage your workforce around your strategy, you run into significant pockets of indifference and negativity. 

Most leaders interpret this reaction as disagreement or criticism of the strategy itself, which can trigger a subconscious emotional reaction. Managers find themselves resorting to exercising greater control over the execution of the strategy, tightening their grip--even if they fundamentally disagree with the micromanaging style.

In many large companies or older organizations, you’ll often find that a control-focused management style creates unnecessary daily difficulties for employees and drives negativity. This is usually neither the fault nor the preference of the management executing the style. The truth is, it’s incredibly uncommon for organizations to formally coach or train managers on mindset or methods. Promotion into management usually comes with a creek, but no paddle.

It’s a cycle most leaders want to break. 

Day-to-day demands can drag a leader’s focus into the weeds of negativity about the strategy, when they would be better served by stepping back to figure out the reasons behind their employees’ propensity for negativity. It’s the classic tension between a natural leader’s hard-wired inclination to work in the business when their time is truly best spent working on the business. We’ve recognized this behavior pattern in many business leaders, and while the inclination is commendable, the trick is, likewise, to stop working in the negativity and start working on the negativity by changing employee mindsets.


Brian Tracy, the professional development training guru and author of Eat That Frog, writes, “An employee’s beliefs, whether positive or negative, helpful or hurtful, largely determine everything they do and how they do it.”

Let’s unpack those beliefs.


The pervasive effects of negativity

Negative attitudes don’t just limit your ability to accomplish new things; they gnaw away at an organization’s existing positive systems: operational efficiency, throughput, quality outcomes, customer service, creative problem solving, and employee engagement. And they drive liabilities like costs and turnover.

But where do negative attitudes come from? No employee starts a job at a new organization with a negative attitude. They start out positive and excited and wide-eyed! So, how did we get here?

The answer is simpler than you think. But also a little more personal than we want it to be.

Think about people in your life that you have a positive attitude toward. What do they do that makes you have that positive attitude? If you think about it for a moment, you’ll probably identify behaviors like:

  • They spend their time on me. 
  • They look out for me. 
  • They show an interest in me. 
  • They’re supportive of me.
  • They’re energizing to be around. 
  • They care about what I think.
  • They’re there when I need them.

Now, think about people in life for whom you harbor a negative attitude. What do these people do that spurs this negativity? If you took a moment to consider it objectively, you might say things like:

  • They don’t care what I think. 
  • They’re never around. 
  • They’re not any fun to be around. 
  • They aren’t supportive of me. 
  • They only talk to me when they want something. 
  • They cause a lot of problems for me. 
  • We are very different.

Next, do your employees the service of believing they’re every bit as reasonable as most folks. Assuming they would have very similar thoughts about what generates positive or negative opinions of others--they would pull from the same lists.

Now, imagine that any given employee in your organization is using these same criteria to inform their attitude toward your management team.

Do you think more than 80% of your people would describe management using statements from the first list? Or the second? Whether it’s one business unit or your entire organization, can you hit that 80% positivity mark?

If not, your company’s operations are grappling with the toxic impact of negative attitudes.



You got a problem with that?

It’s important to note that everyone has a bad day once in a while. We’re not talking about a temporary and human reaction to bad news. We’re talking about pervasive negativity that characterizes everyday behavior and is contagious to co-workers. 

A Harvard Business Review study found that negativity in the workplace has a penetrating and catastrophic effect on the mindset of its people--and directly impacts their ability to carry out their responsibilities. The study found that of the overwhelming 98% of surveyed employees who had recently experienced negativity from a direct co-worker:


The prevailing wisdom is that someone with a negative attitude must be removed from the organization. Sometimes, yes. But often this misses the mark. 

The real target for removal is the attitude, not the individual. Attitudes can change swiftly in the right environment. But removing the knowledge and skills and workload the employee possesses can truly be throwing the baby out with the bathwater--and can come at a significant cost to the organization.

Prevailing wisdom also suggests that management looks at frontline employees first when rooting out negativity. But our experience has shown otherwise. Management style (how a manager does things) has a significant impact on the mindset and behaviors of frontline employees. 

We recommend that, rather than looking for negativity in your frontline, look for guidance on how you and your management team can transform a negative culture into one that actively works to better throughout your company.


Protect your employees

Breaking away from the control-focused management style requires a drastic shift in mindset. Managers must stop thinking that their job is to manage people. Their real job is to manage systems.

Rather than overseeing the activities of their people, a manager must see employees as a key part of the system they’re responsible for. The new role in this mindset is to do everything possible to avoid interference with employees’ activities. And this goes far beyond the manager’s own personal, individual interference. View this role as a broad responsibility to prevent problems from reaching your people, so they are free to do what they do best.

In this new position as “goalkeeper,” the manager focuses almost exclusively on setting very clear expectations, and then getting out of the way. They then “defend” against anything that’s threatening their employees' productivity.

Once a manager has achieved this change in mindset, it will take less and less energy to maintain without shifting into a control-focused mindset. But, the necessary next step is to formalize the caring management style in your organization.



Changing minds (and hearts)

A caring management style is hallmarked by a purpose mindset: a belief that a manager’s purpose is to remove obstacles for their people--and largely stop meddling in their activities unless invited. Managers become facilitators for frontline employees when problems arise instead of swooping in to assume responsibility for the solution and give direction. This mindset is not so different from the delegation and coaching approach many executives use with their direct reports at the director or manager levels.

Eliminating “control” or “bully” management doesn’t happen overnight. And it takes a great deal of practice to get right. It takes alignment within the organization’s leadership to foster the kinds of behaviors and day-to-day decisions that strengthen this approach.

The beginning of this shift in mindset can come with a lot of confusion and uncertainty as managers develop an understanding of what’s expected of them, and put in the work to “let go of the vine” from a trust standpoint with their departments.

Despite the difficulty, the outcome is always worth it when a company commits to this approach. Dedication to a caring management philosophy results in employees embracing the organization’s goals as their own, embodying an ownership mindset toward challenges, and getting staunchly behind the direction set by leadership.

If you would like to learn more or want expert guidance on shifting your organization’s mindset, schedule a consult with Wayforward.

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