Building on Thoughts from Leaders: Negativity and Change

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

This is part eight of a multi-part Blog series on strengthening your team by building on thoughts from experts. The foundation for these articles derives from comments made by writers in the Harvard Business Review over the years to which I add my expertise and experience.

GOOD and BAD. Both are relative terms that describe a range of qualitative measure based on the perception and cognition of those making the assessment. No matter what your professional area, you are virtually guaranteed to encounter behaviors and events that are viewed as good and as bad. As a leader, the formula becomes more compounded because you not only need to understand how you perceive things as good or bad, but also how your employees perceive them. When you communicate with your employees are they receiving the same message that you are transmitting…and are they gaining the same understanding?

Eliminate the Negative and Accentuate the Positive

It is the responsibility of leaders and managers to address the climate of the organization, which includes assessing the influence of good and bad–real AND perceived–on both employees and productivity. But as a leader, should you focus on highlighting the positive (good) or eliminating the negative (bad)? In short, the answer is YES! As a leader you should be working to maintain a focus on positive aspects of the organization while simultaneously working to establish the root cause of negativity and eliminate or mitigate it as much as possible.

OK, so that seems to be a fair balance–as a leader, you did not get where you are without a sense of balance and priorities. You must realize, however, that the impact of negativity–experiences, information, and people–have a far greater reach and longevity than positive aspects. Therefore, it is important for leaders to focus a higher level of effort on engaging with and clearing negativity to provide a more stable foundation upon which to accentuate positive aspects of the organization. To focus on the positive without regard for the negative is inviting a cancer to grow from within the organization that, eventually, could result in the organization’s unrecoverable slow spiral into the abyss.

So, how do you accomplish this? First let me state that there is no cookie-cutter answer to this question. Every organization has different dynamics, different influences–both internal and external, and different people. However, there are a few axioms that can help focus leaders on eliminating or mitigating negativity. Some of the predominant behaviors that are symptoms of negativity–and may spread it within the organization–include grumpiness, laziness, and “mean people.” Identifying these people is only part of the solution–those are merely the symptoms. You need to determine the root cause of their attitudes to enable a sense of positivity to be cultivated within them. Of course, if this is not possible, it may mean that you need to shield others from their potentially destructive attitudes so that negativity does not spread. In other cases, the answer may be tearing down obstacles that are blocking–or are perceived to be blocking–progress for employees or the organization. And there are myriad more as each organization examines itself.

The Battle for Change

Change. Everybody openly embraces change, right? OK, you can wake up, now. Change can be one of the most difficult processes through which you lead an organization and any change is likely to encounter at least a few resisters along the way. It was once said that if you proposed the perfect plan–well-designed, well-thought out, and benefits everybody–that 10% of the people will still not like it .

Unfortunately, even if the number of resisters is small and infrequent, they can have a devastating effect on organizational climate, productivity, and momentum. In fact, it takes only a few dissenters in the wrong positions to shut down progress completely! But how does a leader effectively deal with and move past dissent among staff?

According to writings in the Harvard Business Review (2011) there are four tools that a leader may leverage to battle resistance to change and maintain the forward momentum and positive climate within the organization.

Just the Facts, Ma’am. Whether Jack Webb or Dan Akroyd, you may remember this classic quote from Dragnet. Base your changes on research and make data-based decisions at the outset. Use the evidence to show that change is necessary and that it is possible not only to achieve for the organization but to achieve long-term benefit to the employees. Be careful, though–if 98% of your data is flawless and 2% has errors, the resisters will cleave onto the 2% to make their case using your own data…

Point-Counterpoint. It may be instinctive to disregard the arguments of those resistant to change, but that is exactly the wrong tactic. Listen to opposing viewpoints, understand their perspective and concerns, and then offer compelling arguments for the change case. Remember, they are people, too, and respecting their opinion goes a long way to bringing them aboard the change team.

The Big Picture. Let’s face it–change is not fun, even if it is for the right reason and being accomplished in the right ways. It generally results in an increase in workload up front with a sometimes long period of time afterward to start realizing the benefits from the change. Keeping people focused on the long-term goals and benefits is an important way to maintain both productivity and positive organizational climate.

Repetition, Conditioning, Pressure. It is important to maintain focus and stay on message regarding change, repeating the positive attributes and outcome goals to strike a motivational chord. Make sure that the message is delivered periodically so that it stays in the forefront of employees’ thoughts–over time, this can condition them to accept better the changes occurring around them. Finally, if there are nay-sayers who are particularly influential–or simply just loud and very vocal–target them with positive messages about how change will benefit them and how they can be a positive part of future outcomes. In other words, make it personal–but in a positive way.

Let me add to this list a fifth precept…

Leadership and Managerial Attitude. Often when change occurs the highest levels of stress fall on the shoulders of those leaders and managers who are held accountable for the processes that are being affected most by changes. This can result in a descent into having gruff, unhappy appearances among senior staff. As a leader, it is important to continue nurturing an attitude of positivity among senior staff as well ans look out for the signs of fatigue, overwork, or unhappiness among them. Employees will look to leaders and managers to gauge the climate and potential future of the organization–in this way, a smile and good attitude go a long way toward calming the maelstrom of change.

In Closing…

I presented the subjects of change and negativity together because I felt that discussion of attitude and negativity flowed well into the concepts that can help an organization maintain a positive outlook throughout the change process. Change is hard–on a scale of difficulty, it typically falls somewhere between hard and devastating. Through well-conceived planning by leaders and managers, the ire of change can be focused on positive benefits–albeit sometimes long-term in a world of many people who desire immediate gratification–and managed by the use of data-drive decisions that are both valid and reliable. Finally, keeping employees aware of how well the changes are proceeding is vitally important–the worst thing leaders can do is to keep things hidden because in our current societal paradigm it correlates to a lack of trustworthiness to those who are kept in the dark about things that most likely will affect them now or in the future. Transparency and positivity–two qualities leaders can leverage to bring an organization through change in the least difficult manner possible.

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Join me next week for the ninth post in this series: Innovation on a Budget.


Want to know more about executive leadership? I facilitate a half-day executive seminar that brings concepts to the table for collaborative exercises and application to your organization’s needs. Check out our offerings here or call 866.399.8287 to find out more from a representative today!


Harvard Business School. (2011). Management tips from Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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