“If you are negative, I will kill you.”
A hospitality executive once told me that this playful stance on maintaining a positive attitude was his mantra with his team. Knowing that I had an advanced degree in positive psychology, he expected me to embrace his “negativity towards negativity” approach. But I surprised him when I told him he might be making a mistake.
When people are negative about something, it means they really care. And you don’t want to create a culture where people can’t come to you with problems. There is a time and a place for negativity in any organization.
Don’t get me wrong, I am as much of an advocate of positive attitudes as the next guy. I’d rather have a positive attitude, and I’d rather be surrounded by others who do. I even teach a course on “Positive Leadership” to help leaders create cultures that foster greater employee engagement. But every year in my course, we hold one discussion around negative employees. “What is worse,” I ask my students, “a negative employee or an apathetic one?”
Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to this question, and it invariably sparks an interesting discussion. Some will recognize that an apathetic employee can be a drain on the system as they collect a paycheck but contribute minimally to the goals of the organization. Most of my students will say the negative employee is worse, citing, “one bad apple can spoil the bunch” or other fears of the contagious nature of negativity.
But in their new book, The Upside of Your Darkside, psychology researchers Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener say, “you need an anxious person on your team,” because they serve as the “canary in the mine shaft,” alerting you to problems before your more optimistic team members even become aware of them. You need someone who will tell you when you are making a mistake.
In one of the spas that I managed, I pulled one of the more negative employees aside and asked for her help. She was the one most likely to be complaining about things to her colleagues in the break room so I said, “I can tell you really care about how things go around here, and you are holding us to a higher standard. I’d like you to help us get better. Can you start coming to our weekly management meeting and presenting us the biggest problems in the spa from the employees’ perspective along with proposed solutions?” I was taking the energy and passion that she clearly had, and trying to use it for good instead of evil. She became a huge asset to the team, a leader among her colleagues and helped us to be an even better place to work.
Being a leader is not about eliminating negativity. It is about recognizing the different strengths on your team and allowing them to spring forth for the betterment of the business. As you look at your own team, notice who the complainers are, but don’t kill them. Thank them for keeping you on your toes.
My next course in Positive Leadership will begin January, 2015 in the Spa and Hospitality Management Certificate program offered through UCI Extension.