Transforming negative workers into helpful employees

Better communication promotes positive workplace attitudes

Some employees complain constantly. You know the type. They grumble that the parking lot is too far away, that their workspace is smaller than a co-worker’s, or that someone ate all the doughnuts.
These employees can wound an otherwise healthy workplace culture. They infect their colleagues, ultimately zapping creativity, motivation and morale, and even driving away talent.
Some HR professionals maintain that the best fix for grumblers is an old-school approach: communication.
Offer multiple avenues for all employees to ask questions and voice their ideas, concerns, anger or frustrations, so you can better understand the source of their negativity. If employees don’t feel listened to, their complaints will likely continue.

Spread the word

To help diffuse workplace negativity, HR at the University of Texas at Dallas hosts bimonthly forums for the school’s faculty and staff, says Colleen Dutton, chief HR officer.
“We use this meeting for training, event awareness, announcements and changes. We invite our colleagues from across campus to join us,” she says, adding that about 50 employees attend each meeting. “Things were too siloed before, and there wasn’t a good way for us to reach certain populations. This was designed to open the flow of communication both ways.”
But that’s just part of the solution. HR also needs to find out what turns off employees. Sometimes, managers may need to completely update or overhaul a process, Dutton says. A good example is the annual performance evaluation, which employees often view as archaic or unfair. In many cases, no amount of communication will persuade them to appreciate this unpopular practice that is an ongoing source of employee frustration.

Managers often say they support an open-door policy. Sorry, but that’s not enough.

Focus on strengths

Employees who have been disciplined often spread workplace negativity. The University of Kentucky trains its managers and supervisors on how to work with disciplined employees to reduce negative perceptions. They learn various communication styles to avoid misunderstandings.
The curriculum, called SuperVision, consists of workshops and webinars, says Patrice Carroll, director of HR training and development at the university.
Managers learn how to play to employees’ strengths, rather than to their weaknesses, which makes workers feel respected, valued and more positive about themselves and their employers.
“While employees are being disciplined, these courses make sure things don’t escalate,” Carroll says. “The employees often gain great enthusiasm.”

What do you know?

Managers often say they support an open-door policy. Sorry, but that’s not enough. Create a deliberate way of soliciting employee ideas, says Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, a Maryland-based HR consulting firm working in higher ed.
Employees whose ideas are valued and who understand how their efforts contribute to the company’s goal focus more on their work, rather than on trivial things, Hurt says.
Even when work-related problems pop up, you can still minimize complaints, says Hurt. Consider making employees part of the solution by asking a series of “what” questions. What are you trying to fix? What have you tried? What happened? What would you do if you knew how to fix this problem? Hurt says this approach boosts their confidence and redirects their attention or focus.
“We also provide a checklist to frontline supervisors that asks what they know about their employees,” including the people they live with or if they have a pet, Hurt says. “It’s so basic, but you wouldn’t believe how many say, ‘I don’t know.’ They need to know employees as real human beings and understand what makes them tick.”

Carol Patton writes about human resources issues.


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