How to Handle the Pessimist on Your Team

By Amy Gallo
November 25, 2019

Dealing with a pessimist team member can be frustrating and time-consuming. Attempts to ignore or counter his frequent negative comments may simply incite further negativity. But by being proactive you can help the pessimist change his behavior.

The first step is to figure out what’s causing the negativity. “Some people are dispositional pessimists whose knee-jerk reaction is to see the negative in everything, while others may be expressing a pessimistic point of view based upon informed logic,” says Roderick Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Some common sources of pessimism include resentment at not having been promoted, a need for attention or a need to cover for a lack of knowledge or skill.

Here are three approaches to managing an employee’s negative behavior:

CREATE AWARENESS: Pull the team member aside and explain how his comments are being received. When giving this type of feedback, says Jon Katzenbach, founder of the Katzenbach Center, “be at least as positive as you are negative.” Tell your employee why the team values him and describe the impact of his behavior. For example: “When you make negative comments, the team gets stuck and we aren’t able to move forward.”

REPOSITION NEGATIVE STATEMENTS: Negativity can fester and eventually kill a team’s momentum and motivation. Don’t let negative comments linger. Ask for clarification. If a team member says, “This project is never going to make it past Finance,” ask him to explain why he thinks that. Better yet, ask for alternative solutions: “What can we do to make sure the project does make it past Finance?” You can also ask the team to follow skeptical or critical sentences with “but”: “This project is never going to make it past Finance, but it’s worth laying the groundwork now because next year, Finance is apt to approve more tech projects.” It’s helpful to model this type of behavior. Offer your own constructive criticism while providing an alternative solution.

INVOLVE THE WHOLE TEAM: It can be damaging to single out a team member in front of the whole group. Peer pressure is far more effective. Set team norms and ask everyone to observe them. Marshall Goldsmith, a leadership coach, suggests that individuals ask themselves before they speak, “Will this comment help our customers? Will this help our company? Will this help the person or team we’re talking about? Will this help the person we’re talking to?” Once you’ve agreed on norms, ask the team to hold one other accountable.

Of course, if someone is continually disruptive and does not respond to coaching or feedback, you may need to remove him from the team. But the goal is not to rid the team of skeptical sentiment. Not all negativity is bad, despite how it sounds or feels. As Katzenbach says, “An irritating member adds a dimension to teaming. As long as he or she is not strong enough to derail progress, he or she may offer thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t come in.”

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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