How to motivate a negative employee

I’m pretty sure most of you team leads out there (unfortunately) have experience with this: you have a pretty smart employee in your team, who maybe is one of the first hires or your team.  They generally do their job quite well and they have a great deal of experience in their job and within the company. They would be your most valued employee, except for this one major problem: they have a negative attitude.

They seem to be doing their job reluctantly, they are overly critical, they are complaining, maybe they are even rude sometimes. They are just draining energy from you and from the other team members. You are not sure what to do, or how to fix this persons’ attitude. Maybe you have tried to speak to them before and ended up having a discussion where they might even have a point about why they are “right”.


It is important to change a negative attitude


I have seen employees getting away with this kind of attitude and behavior. Mostly because they are doing their job quite well and have a long history in the company. Or because managers don’t really know how to change them. And after a while, both managers and colleagues start accepting the negative attitude and or might even think they are just “ like that”.

In my opinion, accepting a negative attitude is one of the worst things you could do. Negativity is unhealthy and it poisons the atmosphere. In the long run, it will make people unhappy and unsatisfied. And not only colleagues get affected, but also others, like your clients. They will pick up the negative vibe. New colleagues will take over the attitude too. And even worse, they see that it is acceptable behavior within your company, and then it will be part of your organizational culture.


 In my experience, people who are critical are often very loyal to the team. Unfortunately, along the way frustrations made them loose trust and their loyalty turned sour.


That probably happened because they felt the organization is not making an effort to sort out the problems they encounter or the improvements they have been suggesting. They probably feel let down by management or the organization. If you could turn their negativity into something positive, you’ll have a smart, professional and loyal employee who would really add value to your organization.

In this article we address the attitude that has no particular reason, however, negative attitudes can also have a conflict at it’s core, or cause conflicts at work. Read this piece on How to deal with Conflict in the Workplace.

How to motivate an employee with a negative attitude


The solution might be very simple: a manager who takes the time to listen to what they have to say. They probably need to ventilate their frustrations. But also, they probably have a lot of valuable things to say from their experience. Take their feedback and suggestions for improvement very seriously. Plan a meeting with your employee to talk about their attitude, to listen to them and to manage expectations. Below you will find some the items that should be covered. The order is not really fixed although I would recommend starting with step 1.


Step 1 Tell them why their attitude is problematic in the long run


 Be respectful but also very clear when you describe how people see their negativity and how it affects the rest of the team. If they have been rude, tell them that rudeness is unacceptable under any circumstances. If it is merely critical, negative or sarcastic, explain to them that their negativity affects not only the rest of the team but clients as well. Also tell them that in the end, their attitude will reflect on their performance reviews. And any genuine concerns or improvements from this person will most likely not be heard because people will stop taking them seriously: they are, after all, always complaining.


Step 2. Let them talk.


It is important that your employee gets the change to let their frustrations out. You, as a manager, can give them your time and attention, and make sure they know they have been heard. But at the same time make it very clear to them that you expect them to leave their frustrations were they belong: in the past, and that after this meeting it is time to face forward. 

Step 3 Listen to their input


Your employee’s frustration could be related to past experiences within the organization. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to listen and learn from their experience. Especially if the employee has been with the organization for a long time and you haven’t, you might learn a lot and they can give you loads of information. Also, genuinely asking their input will make them feel more heard and turn around their frustrations (be careful to manage expectations about what will happen with their input).


Step 4 Manage expectations for the future

Ask your employee what they expect from you the organization. If the expectations are not realistic, be honest about that. False promises from the past might be the cause of the current frustrations and you don’t want that. Also, make very clear what you would expect of your employee in your turn.


You are the coach

Remember, as a team lead, you are not unlike a boxing coach. It is your job to make sure they believe in themselves and are in the right mindset to overcome challenges and reach their goals.



Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash