Coping with malcontents: you can deal with negative staff and prevent yourself from becoming negative

Michael R. Weber

They are everywhere. We have to deal with them everyday, and they can tear apart an organization or a family. I am referring to negative people.

They are tremendous energy drainers for adults, children and themselves. Negative people consume large financial and human resources and usually stand in the way of new ideas and programs. Parents, students and other staff members do not want to be around them. We become emotionally upset with negative people, who are frequent targets of complaint by others.

As school leaders, we become frustrated with negative people and the draining effect they have on everything and everybody they touch, Sometimes it becomes so difficult to deal with the negativism that we start becoming negative ourselves. We try to improve morale by accommodating some of their concerns, transferring them to other assignments and sometimes providing honest feedback through formal and informal evaluations.

Unfortunately, none of these approaches usually results in long-term positive change. Only when the negative person leaves do we see any change taking place. With luck, no one else will step in to take his or her place.

Climate Control

Four years ago I set out on a quest to better understand negativism and develop strategies to reduce its impact on staff members, students and the overall school environment. I hoped to share what I learned about how to deal effectively with negative people, improve the overall atmosphere of a school district and increase the positive energy in classrooms. I also wanted to keep my own negativism in check and protect myself from getting dragged into the negativism. I realized personal change was necessary if I had any hope of changing others.

After two years of research, interviews, observations and field testing and after six months of writing, I led my first training program titled “How To Deal With Negative People and Keep From Becoming Negative Yourself” for a school district administrative team. Since then, I’ve shared my training at state and national conventions. Clearly, many of us face this challenge in our school communities. What follows are practical suggestions that I hope will help you become a more positive leader and enable you to deal more effectively with negative people and situations.

* Visualize success.

Start by developing a picture in your mind of what you want to happen. Visualize staff members being positive and supportive of one another along with being respectful and nurturing toward students. See your principals working together as a positive, cohesive team with you and the board of education.

Keep this vision firmly implanted in your mind because this is what you will act on and move toward. If your vision becomes clouded with negative pictures, overpower them with a more positive and desirable vision. You will move in the direction of what you see.

* Know the realities.

There are four realities in dealing with negative people and situations that exist independent of us and that no one can change. These are as follows:

* Difficult people exist in all areas of life and are everywhere. They cause problems for everyone they come in contact with on a daily basis.

* Negative people cannot be forced to change. They can only change themselves. All you can do is set the stage and the environment for them to want to change. Change in negative people is an internal process that requires patience and tenacity.

* Understanding what makes negative people tick and what makes them do what they do reduces your stress and increases your ability to change the organizational atmosphere. It also makes your life a lot easier. A bit of insight produces calmness and relaxation.

* No single book or recipe exists on how to deal with negative people. It is not like making a cake where you put in the ingredients in certain portions, mix them up, bake and out comes a finished cake (a positive person). You are dealing with complex and changeable human beings who all look at life differently and react to situations differently. What you can do is develop some coping techniques and skills to use when faced with negative people and situations.

A Lighter Touch

* Appreciate humor.

You need to appreciate humor and maintain a light-hearted approach to your challenges. You can set the tone for the district and give permission for others to enjoy their jobs by your example and support of the positive energizers in your organization. Your example will help them assist you in keeping others upbeat and positive to reduce the impact of negative people.

Maintaining a good sense of humor accomplishes the following: Helps you lighten up and keeps things in proper perspective; increases your immune system; encourages people to spend time with you; helps you think more clearly; helps you live a longer and happier life; and allows you to become a good role model for others, which in turn begins to change the organizational atmosphere.

During an especially difficult school board meeting last October, several parents shared some strong feelings about 1st-grade class size in two of our elementary buildings. During the discussion, I shared a humorous experience involving one of our 1st-graders. One of the parents and the board president added to the story. Everyone in the room laughed, reducing the tension and enabling us to get down to the business of resolving a significant challenge under almost impossible budget restrictions. When the board members concluded their deliberations and took final action, they received applause from the parents. Reducing the tension in the room by using humor and maintaining an upbeat, positive and respectful environment resulted in discovering a solution to the class size problem when there appeared to be no workable alternative.

* Surround negative people with positive staff members.

You can increase the positive energy in your school district and within classrooms and schools by surrounding negative people with positive people who enjoy life. Make certain every person you hire from this moment on has a positive and optimistic approach to students, other staff members and life.

Use a positive attitude questionnaire to screen candidates during the hiring process. I have developed a 12-question positive attitude employee-selection survey with a rating scale to determine the attitude an individual will possess once hired. The survey has proven to be 98 percent effective within three districts and several corporations. You can create your own questions based on recent research and training related to dealing effectively with negative people. Also, you should field test your questions on several positive people to determine the validity of your questions and establish consistency in the responses.

As you move toward your vision of a more positive school environment, the interview process becomes critical to surround negative people with positive, energetic staff members who enjoy life and want to make a difference in the lives of others. Reinforcing this positive attitude through your role modeling and verbal and written feedback will have significant positive impact in each one of your school buildings and throughout the district.

* Be an absolute role model.

You must walk the talk. Staff members, students, parents, the community and board members must see you as a strong leader with positive solutions to almost any challenge. For example, when I visit the schools, I smile and say “hi” to the students and staff members and ask them questions. This demonstrates interest in their activities and brightens their day. The key is to smile, have an upbeat attitude and demonstrate a genuine interest in their lives.

Also, school board members and your administrative team are interested in positive solutions and options to problems. What they do not need is the top school leader lamenting over budget, state/federal regulations or any number of other challenges. Instead, outline the problem in a factual calm manner and then present several options for solving the problem. As Henry Ford reportedly said: “Yes, we have a significant problem. I am not sure what we are going to do, but here is one thing we can do right now.” Board members, communities and other administrators are looking for positive solution-oriented leadership from someone who is not overwhelmed by negativity.

One thought that runs through my mind over and over again is this: “There is always a solution; find a way, find a way.” Lead by example and monitor your own behavior and attitude. When you slip up, catch yourself, adjust your thinking and move forward. Keep the following in mind as a barometer of your attitude: “You know you are becoming negative when you blame others for your problems.”

Therefore, guard against getting yourself sucked into negative downward spirals. Do not participate in negative conversations or share in other’s negative emotions. Control your own attitude and emotion.

Subconscious Habits

* Understand psychology.

Learn about the psychology of negativism. Negative people are using their attitude to control you and obtain something. Each time you or your staff membets get pulled into a negative downward spiral, negativism is reinforced and it intensifies. Negative people continue their negative habits so long as they are getting their desired control and reactions from others. Negative people are much like children in that they will get attention one way or another. If children do not get positive attention, they will misbehave, resulting in negative attention, because negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Negative people operate in the same manner. In addition, negative people have developed habits of reacting and interacting with their work environment. These habits are subconscious and will continue if you react to them in the same manner. Therefore, breaking this pattern is important for school leaders.

For example, I was working with a bus driver who was exceptionally negative and constantly complaining about everything. In her mind, if it wasn’t negative it wasn’t real. One day during a meeting with the district bus drivers to explain new transportation routes, she began complaining about being underpaid, dealing with disrespectful students and never having input in the decisions about routes. I said, “You might be right, so you have two choices. You decide. First, you can stay with your present route and get less pay because of less mileage or secondly you take the new route with more mileage and more salary. It is your choice, and I will support whatever you choose.”

My offer disrupted her pattern because I did not get frustrated or angry; I just offered her two positive choices in a calm and supportive manner. Two weeks later, she apologized for her attitude and stated, “There are a lot of negative people out there, and I’m not going to be one of them.”

You also can use your knowledge about the psychology of negativism and use techniques such as refraining.

* Reframe negativism into positive energy.

Reframing is an excellent way to break the negative attention cycle, and it prevents you from getting pulled into the negative downward spiral. For example, if you say, “It sure is a nice day today,” and the negative person, perhaps your central-office receptionist, responds, “Yeah, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” You agree with her, saying, “Yes it is supposed to rain tomorrow,” and then reframe, “but I’m going to enjoy the day while it is here.”

Another example: You receive a telephone call from a negative community resident who complains to you, “We sure have a lot of dead wood in this school district. What ate you going to do about it?” After you solicit additional information by asking for specifics, you can reframe the negative statement this way: “Yes, like any organization, our school district has a few staff members who need some assistance and redirection. Overall we have an excellent and dedicated group of staff members who genuinely care about children and their education. We have a comprehensive evaluation system that assists us in helping our weaker staff members improve.”

The idea in reframing is to look for neutral agreement, and then redirect the negative in a positive direction. Many of us do refraining as a habit in our day-to-day conversations with people. When you are dealing with a negative person, refraining becomes critical, and you should make a conscious ongoing effort to reframe negative conversations.

* Use your emotional bank.

Another good way to break the negative reinforcement cycle is to use a concept called an emotional bank. In any relationship, an emotional connection develops, and the strength and enduring qualities of the relationship depend on the strength of the emotional bank between people.

An emotional bank is similar to a savings account in that you put money aside so that when you meet difficult times, you have something to draw on. If you have built up a strong emotional bank within a relationship, you will have something to fall back on when the relationship hits rocky times. For example, if one of your trusted central-office support staffers makes a mistake, you are able to support that employee and provide him with direction to learn from the mistake because you may have built up a strong emotional bank with that person.

Emotional banks are developed and strengthened in two ways. Any time honest positive feedback is provided to someone, the emotional bank with him or her increases. Also, any time someone else’s needs are put first, the emotional bank is strengthened. For example, if a husband and wife come home from work and one says, “Boy, did I have a rough day today,” and the partner responds, “You think your day was bad, let me tell you about mine,” one of them will need to set aside his or her needs to compassionately and empathetically listen to and support the other. When this occurs, an emotional bank is strengthened.

Another example: If you and a principal are frustrated with each other, you might schedule a time to discuss the issues. If you allow the principal to speak first by asking questions and listening empathetically and carefully, you strengthen the emotional connection. In addition, the principal will be more receptive to your thoughts and ideas, and you may even change your views based on what you have heard.

Most negative people rarely have anyone strengthening their emotional bank. They are lonely, have poor self-esteem and have not received much positive feedback. Therefore leaders need to look for ways to provide honest positive feedback to negative people to assist them in building up their emotional bank and their relationships with you and others. Each time you can provide positive feedback to negative people, they begin to change. They start to look at the world differently, and they change in the manner in which they interact with you.

By building these relationships with negative people and by refraining to interrupt negative people’s patterns, you become more effective in dealing with them and assisting them in wanting to make changes. This leads into the need for you to change your attitude toward negative people.

Personal Behavior

* You must change first.

If you are truly going to assist negative people in changing, you must change your attitude toward them. School leaders must have the compassion and empathy to understand how depressing a negative person’s world must be to him or her.

Negative people often have confirmed significant negative situations in their life and are manifesting them through their outward anger and frustration. By providing compassion and understanding, negative people will sense your caring, become more comfortable with you, and actually follow your lead in moving the organizational atmosphere in a positive direction.

Finally, take a good, hard and honest look at yourself. What are you doing to contribute to the negative status quo? This requires personal insight, not strategic planning, site-based management, organizational change theory or any other type of the usual external leadership reactions. Changing a negative person or negative organizational climate is an emotionally charged internal issue. Make attitude, wellness and positive solutions a theme in your organization. Provide the leadership, initiative and financial resources to help everyone in your school district build up each other’s emotional banks and those of the students to improve the environment and enhance learning.

Through your lead, this can be accomplished. It requires time, patience, focus and perseverance. As you surround negative people with positive energetic staff members who enjoy life, the entire school environment will change and negative people will be forced to change too or move on. The place to start is with yourself and then your principals, and slowly and systemically you, the board, parents, the community and even the students will begin noticing the changes. Positive energy then replaces the old habits of negativity and whining.

RELATED ARTICLE: A Personal Personnel Affair

As an educator for 31 years, I believe the most successful way to help a negative person want to change takes place on an individual and personal basis. These are the ways I try to effect behavioral change in others:

* Form a problem-solving alliance with a negative person so you can help the person see possible positive solutions to his or her problems.

* Find the energy to listen carefully and jot down a negative person’s main points. By recording them, you will help prevent the person from recycling them again. When someone does recycle a critical comment, you can point out that it was already shared with you, and ask whether he or she has any other information you should know.

* Tactfully interrupt to help elicit specifics. Vague problems are rarely solvable. Go through main points and obtain specific information.

* Shift the focus to solutions. Ask: What do you want? Why? How will this help the problem? Are there other solutions?

* Show the person the future by helping him or her to have something to look forward to.

* Refrain from solving problems for the person. You can’t. What you can do is reframe and ask if he or she has any positive workable solutions.

Thwarting Complainers and Criticizers

Can a single educator turn staff members who are inclined to grouse and grumble into problem solvers with a positive disposition?

I say “yes” enthusiastically. Here are some ways I go about it:

* Greet them positively, and after the greeting let them speak first.

* Take a few deep breaths and stay as relaxed as possible.

* Allow the complainer to let off steam and run out of negative energy.

* Listen actively to their complaints and take notes. If you are on the telephone, do not do other work simultaneously. Give the complainer your full attention.

* Try to empathize with a criticizer. Ask questions for clarification and to encourage the complainer to continue talking.

* Offer to look into the matter.

* Admit when you have made a mistake, apologize and suggest how you plan to put it right.

* Refrain from making excuses.

* Schedule a better time to talk. If you cannot deal with the complaint on the spot, tell the complainer when you will.

* Maintain a positive/supportive demeanor. Thank complainers for sharing their concerns.

–Michael Weber

Michael Weber is superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville School District, 100 W. Monroe St., Port Washington, WI 53074. E-mail:

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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