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How Great Leaders Deal With Negative People

What leaders tolerate, they encourage.
John Eades
Contributing Writer

Negativity is a drain on your life. To be fair, it’s more of a drip than an enormous leak, but it adds up over time. Negativity can come from various sources, but the most likely source is from within or another person.  

Since leaders are in the people business, it’s only a matter of time before you’re working to overcome it in yourself or dealing with negative people on your team. Before you think you are alone in this struggle, one of the most common challenges leaders verbalize in workshops or coaching sessions is some version of “dealing with negative people.”

This challenge is so common because people are seduced into a belief pattern that fears fatalistic outcomes and prepares for the worst. 

“Negativity is common because people are seduced into a belief pattern that fears fatalistic outcomes and prepares for the worst.”

Negativity is ultimately a safety mechanism, but most people who would be classified as negative don’t want to be. However, they intentionally or unintentionally take previous experiences and project them forward. While it’s true a negative outcome could be the end result, thinking that way all but guarantees it.  

Positive vs. Negative

Before we go any further, let’s get on the same page about negativity because no one is immune to it. Negativity is a tendency to be gloomy, disagreeable, and skeptical. It’s a pessimistic attitude that always expects bleak outcomes.

The opposite of negativity is positivity. Positivity is better than negativity, but no one is positive or negative 100% of the time. The best leaders recognize this and refuse to let a bout of temporary negativity permanently change them. 

“Great leaders refuse to let temporary negativity change them permanently.”

There are many differences between being a positive person and a negative one. Here are just a few:

  • A negative person sucks the life out of a room. They make others question themselves and what they are doing. They focus on what is wrong or what could go poorly in almost every situation. They live in a constant state of scarcity thinking. Negative people hold grudges and blame others.  
  • A positive person inspires action, radiates confidence, changes culture, and is life-giving. They are grateful and look for the good in almost any situation. Positive people don’t hold grudges and choose to live with an abundance mindset. They accept reality but remain hopeful that a brighter future exists tomorrow than today.

It’s evident that being a positive person is better than being a negative one, but it goes deeper than the obvious. A 22 Year Study of over 350k people found a consistent thinking pattern of the most successful people. They were optimistic and willing to learn until they figured it out.

“Being a positive person versus a negative person can allow you to live longer.” 

If that wasn’t enough, being positive might also keep you alive: A study done by John Hopkins found that people with a positive outlook were ⅓ less likely to have a heart attack than those who had a negative outlook. The study continued, “There is definitely a strong link between “positivity” and health.

Additional studies have found that a positive attitude improves outcomes and life satisfaction across a spectrum of conditions—including traumatic brain injury, stroke, and brain tumors.

Three Options

Since you have gotten this far, it’s safe to say you agree that positivity but not toxic positivity is essential. However, it doesn’t change the fact that you have negative people on your team. 

You have three options when dealing with negative people: Tolerate Them, Tell Them, or Transfer Them.

Tolerate Them 

The most common response to negative people is to tolerate them. To choose to overlook their toxic virtue in lieu of other strengths they possess or outcomes they deliver. While this approach is the path of least resistance and might make sense on the surface, it is short-term thinking with potentially long-term consequences.  

If you believe that we become the five people you spend the most time with, the long-term consequences of their jadedness and pessimism can rub off on you and others in the team. Negativity on a team is a like a weed; it spreads quickly and can be difficult to root out.  

Tell Them

The most uncommon option is to have a courageous conversation with negative people by telling them the truth. The reason it’s so rare is that having a conversation like this is uncomfortable and doesn’t guarantee the person will change or modify their attitude.  

Transfer Them

The last option is to stop kicking the proverbial can down the road and transfer them to another team or unemployed workforce. Many managers eventually get to this point but often months or even years too late. They tolerate; therefore, they encourage the negativity for so long until others on the team finally break, and transferring or terminating them is the only path forwards.

“What leaders tolerate, they encourage.” 

This is easy to write but difficult to act upon. Firing someone can be the most challenging thing for a leader, especially when it is based upon something a team member chooses to do, like being negative.  

The Toxicity Takeover

Getting anyone to change their mindset is a challenging thing to do. A mindset is a protein powder wired into our brain based on what we think about. Helping someone else rewire their mindset can take years and immense coaching and effort. If you don’t have the luxury of that time and have a willing team member who verbalizes the desire to make this kind of change, try what I call the toxicity takeover.  

Step 1: Be an Active Listener – The best way to help a negative person is to get close to them and understand their needs and grievances. Get inside their head and allow them the space to verbalize their belief pattern. This can be particularly challenging because most positive people naturally avoid negativity, so getting this close to the fire is daunting. 

Step 2: Set the Stage with Something Positive – Talk about what they do well and what you appreciate first. This lowers the emotional temperature in the room and creates space to talk about what needs to change. 

Step 3. Define Clear Standards – Tell them the truth about what their negativity does to them, the team, or your enjoyment at work. Then reiterate the standard around positive thinking and looking at the gains before the gaps in any situation. Since changing a negative belief pattern is complicated, coach-specific tactics help make the change over time.  

Step 4. Values Improvement Plan – You have heard of the PIP or a Performance Improvement Plan, but this is different. Have them define their core values and verbalize the professional they want to become. Document the character and value traits that exist today and where you want them to work to improve. 

The Wrap

The toxicity takeover is challenging, so most leaders don’t do it. However, I believe people are capable of change at any age, and giving up on people who desire change isn’t in my DNA. Be an active listener, set the stage with something positive, define clear standards, and help them improve their values.  

It’s not easy to maintain positivity when things look negative. But you wouldn’t be in the position you are in if you couldn’t do it. 

  1. This is a such an important topic, because it is such a slow drip, it’s hard to recognize the harm from the larger ripple-effect on the teams around them. The atmosphere it creates becomes palatable but difficult to pinpoint. These conversations are absolutely not easy to have, but can be a personal life-changer for the one receiving the feedback, encouragement to the one giving the feedback, and a breath of fresh air for their coworkers. What I love about this article is Step 3 and 4 of the plan that John outlines. These two are crucial for actual change, rather than frustration. The conversation itself is difficult, but giving clear expectations and coaching on how to change is what gives everyone hope that change can happen. Thanks, John, for sharing this!

  2. Great article. I actually enjoy this scenario because as Michael indicates, those conversations can be a life-changer – for both sides. You do have to decide if the negative person is negative/toxic or just negative/tolerable to know if the nuclear option is a possible outcome. I look at it as a can’t lose kind of thing. Either you get them over the hump and they become productive/positive members of the team, or you can establish that there is no turning them. In such case, they should generally be liberated to go to a place where they can be happy and you can then go hire the person you need to move the business forward. Much harder in a family context versus work, obviously! What is the lowest common denominator that your team can tolerate? If they are redeemable, I like to find that one thing that we can rally around as a positive connection between us. Could be work related or not. Then you wind your way to the problem that is causing the negativity. I always deal with the problem head on! If you cant get there and there is no chance for redemption, liberation may be the best thing for both sides so everyone can move on be happy.

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