Employee Engagement Ideas: How to Motivate Negative People

By Heather Campbell

Have you ever had to deal with a negative employee?

Negative people can be frustrating to manage because they never seem to see the bigger picture or are unwilling to move forward from ‘issues’.

However, having helped many organisations deal with negativity over the years, I know that sometimes these individuals can be drivers of innovation and positive change.

It’s important to understand how to manage negative people, how to distinguish them from pessimists, and then, finally, what to do with those negative employees.

Below I have outlined five steps to help you deal with negativity in the workplace…


1. Recognise there will be a reason people are negative

Let’s get things started with a major point: people usually aren’t negative just for the hell of being negative.

People don’t inherently want to come off as negative – be that employees, friends, partners, or colleagues. Negativity always comes from a source, which may be something that you or your organisation is doing, or it may be bigger than your organisation.

Keeping this in mind will help you step back and avoid automatically taking the negativity personally. This, in turn, will reduce the likelihood you become negative in response and have the courage to carry out Step 2.

2. Have the courage to ask WHY they are negative

As we just mentioned, negativity has a source. As a leader, it’s important to have the courage to engage your employees and find out WHY they are negative.

It could be that they are unhappy, unchallenged, or unsupported in their roles. It could be that the processes in place are costing them time and making them less efficient. It could be something related to their environment, manager or co-workers. These are all important aspects for you, as a leader, to explore with the individual and resolve if possible.

Or it could be something that is happening in their personal lives – and that could relate to present, past or even anticipated events! This is a trickier area for a leader to handle – it’s really not your business to dig into this, so don’t do so. And if an individual chooses to share something with you, listen and empathise – but never advise!

Regardless of severity or importance, it’s your job as a leader to find out WHAT your employees are going through and help define WHY it is creating workplace negativity.

3. Have the openness to listen and understand

There’s a big difference between hearing someone’s negative feedback and listening to negative feedback with the intention of understanding it.

We all have the potential to be negative, especially if we’re in a situation where our role is a bad fit for our personalities and skill-sets – we can all fall into ‘situational negativity’.

Whatever the cause, it’s most important to have the courage to engage your employees honestly and openly. If there’s a problem, don’t you want to know about it?

And surely every leader needs to be willing to take on board feedback, even if it isn’t always given in the most skilful way possible.

4. If there is an issue, look at what can be resolved

Innovation and change are created out of a need for a new resolution. There may be employees who appear negative, only because they see a better way – and feel their thoughts and ideas aren’t being heard.

And, be honest, is it possible they’re right about this? I’ve met many genuinely well-intentioned individuals whose valid protestations were unwelcome and so quickly got them labelled as ‘trouble-makers’.

As an external consultant, it’s commonplace for people to tell me that the points I have just made to senior leaders are ones that they have already made many times over. But being a prophet in their own land‘ meant no-one listened. It had to take ‘an outsider’ to be heard. Now, that’s a waste for your organisation on so many levels.

Change in any organisation is difficult, however if there are ways to improve processes that resolve frustration, save costs over time, and help your organisation stay competitive in the current industry space – then expressions of negativity have a lot of validity.

It’s just that leaders may not want to hear them.

5. Make sure ‘pessimistic’ isn’t a more accurate label

In our positive, ‘can do’ world, someone who is pessimistic is too easily seen as negative. Pessimists naturally see the risks, they naturally see what could go wrong – and in a room full of optimists, that looks like negativity.

Pessimistic people don’t see themselves as negative, they look at themselves as realists.

And we’re often so busy trying to make sure all our employees are ‘looking at what can be done, not what can’t’ that we tend to see the pessimist as someone to be put down, shut up or even ridiculed.

Pessimists have a place and a huge value in any team – they are a useful counter-balance to the positive perspective of the optimists.


Employees who offer a different opinion than the crowd can be the innovators and the ones who drive positive change – which is absolutely invaluable in an organisation. If your business only has positive people, you take on the risk of losing the person who can evaluate a situation and say: “look what could go wrong.”

In dealing with negativity in any workplace, it’s important to engage it head-on and with an open mind. If you don’t seek out opportunities to work with your employees to improve, their negativity will continue to grow. Once you do engage your employees, take their thoughts on board and see if improvements can be made.

Here are my top five tips to get you started with effectively managing negative people:

  • Recognise there will be a reason people are negative
  • Have the courage to ask WHY they are negative
  • Have the openness to listen and understand
  • If there is an issue, look at what can be resolved
  • Make sure ‘pessimistic’ isn’t a more accurate description

CommsMasters focusses on improving business conversations by training leaders to overcome common workplace obstacles. Part of these conversations are focussed around negativity, embracing change, and understanding how to be a good leader.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}