How To Work With A Negative Person

This article is for anyone who works with a negative team member. You know, the cynic who has an uncanny ability to point out every disadvantage and the smallest risk. This article is not about managing toxic or chronically angry employees; those are bigger challenges and may need assistance from human resources and external coaching / mentoring.

If you do work with a negative person I invite you to step back and consider these four things.

  • People who point out disadvantages and potential risks are valuable. Sure, it gets annoying if cynicism is their natural state. But, when their negativity is balanced and relevant, (if you are reading this they may need your help to learn how to do this), their observations can provide opportunity for the team to take something that is good and make it great.
  • Your cynic may not realize they come across as negative. The reality is that even most uplifting people are not aware of the impact their moment-by-moment actions have on others. We are all working hard and putting out fires as we run from meeting to meeting on auto-pilot saying and doing things without considering how others may react.
  • Most negative people want to be part of a productive team and do feel they are helping. In fact, they often get surprised (and hurt), when people respond impatiently.
  • Ask yourself, “Is your cynic really negative, or are they not as enthusiastic as you or the rest of the team?” Take it from this guy whose natural state is quiet and reflective that my silence has often been interpreted as me being uninterested… and therefore negative, opposition or disagreement. I’ve been called arrogant by some people who just meet me – and once they get to know me they call me helpful and thoughtful.

So, if we consider most cynics may not notice their impact and only want to be part of a productive team, what matters is how we – as their leader (or perhaps parents or partners), help maximize their contribution. It’s also important we help them minimize any damage to their negative reputation has on their co-workers morale and the company performance. Let’s look at how.

Where Did Their Behaviour Come From?

I don’t believe most of us are naturally cynics. I think our natural state is one of openness, curiosity, empathy and compassion. To prove my theory all we have to do is look at young children; they are completely inspired and in wonder and thirsty to learn about the world around them. I also believe many of us learn to shut down our curiosity and begin to see the world as glass half empty. I believe you and I learn our communication style over many years from our family, teachers and other social influencers. And, it is also likely your cynic has been influenced by their first boss or two. So, now is your chance to be a boss who has a positive influence on them.

How To Help Your Cynic

I often say in my Difficult Conversation training that we go through our days reacting… not responding… and we have to learn to respond versus react. Reacting is good when there is an out-of-control bus heading for us because our reaction will be to jump out of the way. Responding means we are being thoughtful… attentive to our needs and feelings and the needs / feelings of the people around us. So, responding is good when we are in meetings or when we are discussing important things with people who matter to us.

Take it from me – as a recovering cynic – I used to spend a lot of time reacting to the world around me. Thankfully, early in my career I had someone point out my negative communication style to me and was able to change.

To help your negative person, here are six steps I’ve learned that can help:

Step 1. I invite you to see your cynic as more than negative… try to see them as they may see themselves… as helpful, valuable members of your team. If you or your team has been working with them for a while, your naysayer has probably worn down your patience. It’s natural you may have learned to ignore them or consider what they say as ‘chronic noise’. Try to override that instinct. Look on their participation with fresh eyes.

Interpret your cynics emotions and input as valuable and help them adjust their communication style so that they can make the world – or the project as good as they want it to be. Unfortunately, dealing with tough situations from time-to-time is part of what it’s like to be a leader.

Step 2. Take a deep breath and prepare to have a one-on-one discussions with your naysayer. Do this sooner rather than later. It’s easy to convince ourselves, “it’s not that bad” or “my cynic will come around eventually.” Well… it probably is that bad.
It may be a difficult conversation but negative people often take down the energy of the team or stop creative conversation because nobody wants to ‘deal with them‘. This is bad for the team, the customers and the company. This can also lead to higher turnover as other valuable team members quit because they want to work in a more positive space. This conversation may be uncomfortable… but having it is important.

Step 3. Share what you see – strive to build (or keep), a trusting, respectful relationship with your cynic. Talk with them about the impact their approach has on others. Don’t call them moody or tell them they have a bad attitude… this may shut them down or will very likely make them defensive… wouldn’t it make you defensive? This is a time you need to demonstrate some emotional intelligence. Don’t be too ‘robotic’ or unemotional.

Your first sentence is really important. It will set the tone for the conversation. Start with something supportive like, “Greg, professional development is something I try to support each member of my team. Can I give you some feedback that may be difficult for you to hear but I think can be an important growth opportunity for you?” What comes next from you should be nonaggressive stories, some specific examples of the behaviour you’ve witnessed (it cannot be hear-say), where you think they were trying to be helpful but it was interpreted as negative.

Step 4. This step is less about you and more about them. Your employee has to recognize their behaviour as a challenge. As suggested above, this may be a surprise to them – they may not have recognized they have been negative. So, your cynical team member may need some time to process this before they can move forward. They may feel embarrassed, or angry. Help them through this. Hopefully they begin to see what you see and choose to work with you on it. This will be your time to give them some coaching / mentoring.

If they don’t see their approach as a challenge, you will have a bigger problem than you would like… but you have to stay on this. Keep having conversations with them. Keep documenting your conversations. Keep offering assistance. If you haven’t, now is a good time to begin talking with your HR department.

Step 5. When they accept their responsibility, use your professional experience to help your employee come up with their own ways to resolve the situation. This will help them both understand the challenge and its complexities… as well as help them be more committed to the solution. Help them evaluate their communication style and how they can improve in certain situations. For example:

  • To change, they have to learn to also being to see and express the positive. They may have to learn to begin to respond – not react.
  • Ripping apart an idea in front of someone’s bosses boss may make their co-worker feel vulnerable… and rightfully upset.
  • Help your cynic be aware of their negative tone and the impact it has on others. Help them discover ways to express themselves, to support teamwork and respect other opinions. Most of the time tone is an involuntary reaction – not a voluntary response. Help your negative person be aware of the tone they use.
  • Instead of blurting out a challenge they notice, start a sentence with something positive… something like, “I like where this is going – can I share a challenge I see and would like your help to work out.”
  • There may be times when saying nothing would be better. For example, if what they are going to point out will have little or no difference. Help them protect their reputation and see when they should save their ‘constructive feedback’ for big challenges.
  • Help them evaluate their body language. Do they sit through meetings with their arms crossed, scrolling through their smartphone and or looking on with a frown.

Step 6. Help your team… help them respond not react as well. Everyone can benefit from learning how to pause, be a better listener and learn to say to themselves, I am feeling XYZ now – and now I have a choice to respond with X or respond with Y. When we are in this state we have switched off our reaction button – for the greater good.

Help your team see that healthy opposition and debate are important parts of a decision-making process. Some of the most effective and successful teams not only have disagreement, they actually try to inspire respectful disagreement (in a controlled meeting), as part of a brainstorming exercise. Being aggressive, angry or hijacking conversations is not healthy or accepted. Encourage your team to embrace everyone’s differences.

Negative intention lead to negative actions and mostly… negative outcomes. Compassionate intentions lead to compassionate outcomes.


Every organization has one or two cynics. Ignoring them is not healthy. If you have a trusting relationship with one of them, you may be able to successfully point out their impact to them… and help them adjust. Never undervalue the benefit of connecting with other people.

If your cynic is a new employee – set them straight early. If you have just taken over a department – do it early in your new role.

If your cynic ever wants a leadership position, you need to help them realize they are going to have to listen more than they may be used to – even if they think they know the answer long before their team member is finished speaking.

When you are speaking with someone, stay present to what you are needing, feeling and believing… and what you think they are needing, feeling and believing; this goes for your naysayer and everyone else, in every conversation you have.

BONUS: What is a Toxic employee? Some people exude negativity. They don’t like their jobs or they don’t like their company. No matter who their boss is, they are always jerks and they are always treated unfairly. The company is always going down the tube and customers are worthless.

So, there you have it. We hope you enjoyed this post. Happy communicating, listening and working from home.

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Bruce Mayhew Consulting facilitates courses including Generational Differences, Business Writing, Email Etiquette, Time Management and Mindfulness.

Find answers to your Professional Development questions / needs at

Call us at 416.617.0462.

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When An Employee Is Undermining Your Authority. What To Do!

Only a few situations are more unpleasant for leaders than needing to provide constructive feedback to a ‘team member’ in your care who is undermining your authority. I don’t mean an employee who engages in practical, respectful, invited debate… because that’s OK. I mean an employee who may be:

  • Not taking responsibly for their work – blaming others
  • Not doing as you asked – or as the team agreed
  • Doing the opposite of what you asked – or the team agreed
  • Talking behind your back
  • Intentionally bypassing you for people higher up the hierarchy chain
  • Other… 

Real Example: An analyst was happy to take credit for good work, but their faults were consistently blamed on incomplete data provided by another department. Sure – management intervention may be required in the other department. However, it is a very serious issue when an analyst knowingly passes on poor quality data (without any comment until it is noticed by their boss). In my view that analyst now has no fewer than eight performance behaviours and/or impacts that need to be addressed. They are:

  1. Knowingly delivering poor quality work
  2. Not being responsible for their work – blaming others for shortfalls
  3. Eroding the trust other professionals have in their abilities / their work
  4. Willingly putting the reputation of their co-workers and the whole department (and likely organization), at risk if the inconsistencies were not caught by their boss
  5. Consciously putting the deadline at risk as they correct their work
  6. The time, cost and opportunity lost by them, the leader and very likely their co-workers to correct their poor work quality (hopefully on time)
  7. The time, cost and opportunity lost by their leader to have to double and perhaps triple check all of their future work
  8. The time, cost and opportunity lost by their leader to coach the individual until trust in their work is established

No matter what the reason for the undermining behaviour, it’s important leaders act on disrespectful employee behaviour quickly. Any delay may be translated by the architect and/or others as acceptable behaviour.

The first solution I support is to be sure you clearly communicate expectations in advance to your whole team. The best defence is a great offense; stop problems before they start.

  • How? Regularly share the organization values. Discuss how these values can impact their work and their behaviours.
  • When? Early January after year-end holidays would be perfect time to review the values. But don’t wait for calendar year-end. Fiscal year-end would also be a natural fit – or at the end a big project; or after starting at a new department or company. Don’t delay – find any opportunity!

We Have To Accept… Our Complex World Is Full Of Challenges

Leaders have more responsibility than ever. They are entrusted to continually reinforce the trust, vision, goals and values of the organization and to engage employees by providing learning and advancement opportunities. Leaders do all of this and more with the ultimate goal of creating a dependable, strategic and socially sound foundation that supports the profitable distribution of your organizations products and/or services. Phew!

And… today’s complex and global workspaces often reflect multiple generations and multiple cultural backgrounds. Employee diversity is a good thing because it increases creativity, problem solving and it tends to prepare the organization to increase its market share by attracting more diverse, satisfied and loyal customers. Today’s complex and global workspaces can also create challenges as different social norms begin mixing – hierarchy being an example of the possible challenges.

That said, for a team to truly be productive they all have to agree to collaborate on a shared goal, share expertise and experience, to support the decisions the team makes – and to support each other. An employee who is undermining a leaders authority can cause serious damage. A cohesive team has to demonstrate mutual respect, commitment and honesty – without them they are a group of individuals, not a team.

How To Have Difficult Conversations With A Challenging Employee

Whether it is unconscious insubordination or conscious insubordination, focus on solutions. We also have to accept challenges are usually not isolated to one person’s behaviour. More than one person may also need to change behaviours. As my dad would say, “it takes two to tango”. But, when dealing with the individual – here are steps I recommend.

1. Arm yourself with the facts.

Have a single goal in mind and familiarize yourself with several very specific examples of their undesirable behaviour. You must have observed these examples – they cannot be hear-say. Also, don’t use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’; do use phrases like, ‘I notice when’.  Be ready to share how their behaviour makes you feel and how it impacts the team and/or project.

2. Connect with HR

You may want to visit human resources before you approach the employee who is undermining your authority. Discuss your observations. Discuss if you should make this a formal or informal (off their record), discussion. My personal approach is to keep things off the record for the first discussion (everyone is allowed to make a mistake), but I’m also clear of the implications if the undesirable behaviour continues.

3. Be mindful of their mood and your mood.

It’s not a good time when you are both running to an important, stressful meeting.

4. Manage your emotions and look at the situation objectively.

Calmly present your goal and your observations.

Show empathy and patience. You have had time to prepare but your employee may not be expecting this conversation; they may not even recognize their behaviour is disruptive.

Don’t assign blame. Keep the mission, values and vision of the organization and department in mind when you share your observations. Describe how the specific incidents you documented undermine the values of the organization. Explain the negative impact their behaviours may have for their professional future (in a non-threatening way). Also explain the negative impact their behaviours have on the team and likely the company. The more you can personalize the impact, the more they will likely see the need for change – and that you are trying to help them as much as yourself, the team, the company.

Share the behaviour you expect. Involve them in determining what changes they will have to make and how their future performance can be measured to confirm improved / changed behaviour.

For example: “I don’t know if you realize, but you push back nearly every time there’s a change or a new assignment… just like you did yesterday with the XYZ project. Pushing back as frequently as you are is disruptive to the team. Have you noticed this? I would like to hear how are you feeling when I assign you a new piece of work and your thoughts about how to manage new priorities in the future”.

5. Do your best not to trigger fear.

If they do get triggered, don’t let them trigger your fight-or-flight mechanisms. You have to stay calm. If you feel you are becoming angry or upset don’t argue. One way some leaders find helpful and that I recommend is naming the experience you are feeling and that you want to take a break to go to get a glass of water.

6. Don’t be funny or familiar.

Seriously. Humour is a very risky thing in situations like this. It can backfire and get you into trouble with Legal and/or HR… not to mention the employee.

7. Follow-up

Following your conversation with you challenging employee, thank them for their cooperation. Show your confidence in their ability to change (stop undermining your authority).

8. Keep your eyes open for continued behaviour.

One discussion will rarely solve a problem on its own. Reinforce when you see they are trying to make positive changes and identify slips into the old pattern. Give prompt feedback.

9. Document everything

In the end, document what you both agreed to with respect to future actions and behaviour – come to a written agreement. It doesn’t have to be a formal reprimand – but it could be an agreement between you and them.

Be Prepared For A Deeper Cause

As you address your difficult employee, recognize that sometimes bad behaviour is a symptom of a deep problem in their personal lives. A worker’s personal life and work life are greatly interconnected. That doesn’t mean it should be tolerated for long.

If you uncover some personal challenge, I suggest you recommend they find a private councillor. Your work benefits and your HR department may facilitate this. A personal matter doesn’t mean they get to keep up their unprofessional behaviour at work – but it may mean you have to spend a bit more time coaching / mentoring them.


Addressing unfavourable behaviour quickly is important. An employee who undermines their leader and/or their team authority can contaminate the workspace, productivity, employee engagement and even other employee’s loyalty. Your quick action and the constructive feedback will likely also help the employee. By helping them fix behaviour they may not have even been aware you may save a wonderful, successful career that could have otherwise been derailed unnecessarily. Dealing with difficult situations makes you a hero.

Leadership is a Journey.
I hope you enjoy the Journey… it is a wonderful opportunity.

Happy communicating, mentoring and working with people from all generations.

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If you enjoyed this post we think you’ll like:

Bruce Mayhew Consulting is an Executive Coach who facilitates courses including Business Writing, Email Etiquette, Generational Differences, Time Management, Leadership and Mindfulness.

Bruce Mayhew on Canada AM

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Find answers to your Professional Development questions / needs at

Call us at 416.617.0462.

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I’d enjoy reading your comments on this post.


How To Manage Difficult Conversations At Work

In many cases difficult conversations rarely get a chance to happen. Instead, we spend days, weeks, even years telling ourselves (and perhaps our unfortunate partners at home), stories about how rude, inappropriate, unhelpful and/or arrogant some people are. We rarely have the conversation with the person or people we are having difficulty with. We bring our own preconceptions to the events and don’t even get close to finding a viable solution. So… does the challenge get resolved? No… like a coffee maker, our stories keep perking – getting stronger and more bitter as time goes by.

Difficult Conversations Perk

Presto© Coffee Perk

Note for clarification: Firing someone isn’t a difficult conversation. Having a difficult conversation often starts uncomfortable but usually leads to quickly working with someone to help you and them understand a disruptive situation and correct it.

Lets face it – in a heated moment we all tell ourselves stories. What matters is how long we allow ourselves to be ‘stuck’ telling our stories. Your stories likely sound something like:

¤  She did ABC because she just knew I wanted XYZ.
¤  It’s like he thinks none of us know what we are doing.
¤  He always interrupts us because he doesn’t value our ideas.

If we do nothing we don’t find solutions. Instead we tell stories that build walls and increase stress while also degrading the quality creativity and productivity of our work environments. And if we keep it up, we may even put our employment status at risk.

Of course, while these negative stories go on and on, the person who is challenging us often knows nothing of our internal struggle. Until we talk to the person who is challenging us, we stay frustrated but we do not know their true motivation and beliefs – we only know our (biased), guess of Why the problem happened.

How To Quit Telling Yourself Difficult Stories And Start Having Difficult Conversations

  1. Most importantly, reclaim space and authority to build community. Take back your power to do something good… even though it may be difficult. I bet, 9 times out of 10 it will get better… and it is certainly better than you telling yourself difficult stories for months or years on end.
  2. Realize when you are telling difficult stories.
  3. Know that our subconscious often adds fuel to the fire; what we feel we make real. We may even subconsciously do or say things that promote a behavour. If you think your challenger will be:

¤  Creative – he will be creative “Wow Bruce, that is a great fresh approach.”
¤  Arrogant – she will be arrogant. “Yvette is such a know-it-all.”
¤  Rude – you will see examples of rudeness.
¤  Dismissive – you will feel you are being disrespected and dismissed.

  1. Show emotion but don’t be emotional. Tap into your empathy and that of the other person / people, “I’m feeling uncomfortable about something that happened yesterday but I feel it’s important we discuss it so I understand it better. Do you have some time now?”
  2. Explore WHAT someone did – not WHY. Stories that focus on Why is a path that often leads to blame (and the Dark Side for Star Wars fans). And if we haven’t spoken with anyone, our stories about WHY are also speculation which is dangerous and not helpful. Consider, they may not have even noticed they did XYZ.
  3. Let’s consider a situation at work when someone did something inappropriate / against policy. If someone does something outside of work boundaries then it needs to be addressed – not because someone is rude, disrespectful or mean… but because WHAT they did is inappropriate. Inappropriate behaviour must change in order to support a trusting, creative, collaborative environment. And while the conversation may be uncomfortable… even difficult conversation… in the majority of time it doesn’t need to get heated… in my experience.
  4. On rare occasions – do nothing. If it happens once, then sure – you may choose to let it slide… but if it is behavior that repeats, it should be discussed ASAP for the harmony of the team.

If you don’t manage difficult conversations, what are your options?

¤  Do nothing and keep being stressed
¤  Wait until you have had enough, lose your temper and yell at them.
¤  Continue to complain to all your coworkers and your partner

They don’t sound like great options. I recommend having a calm conversation where you share your observations and how those actions make you feel. I’d say something like, “When we are in meetings I feel you often interrupt me when I’m speaking. It makes me feel like you don’t value what I have to say. I wanted check in with you and see if you noticed and what might be happening.” This should start a helpful, respectful, calm conversation.

In conflict situations, you decide how you are going to respond when something doesn’t go your way. Be conscious to Feed Positive Energy – not the negative energy. Elevate the conversation. As we see Michelle Obama saying in this Youtube video, “When they go low, we go high.”

Before difficult situations even happen, choose how you want to act. Who do you want to be in a difficult relationship? Do you want to be the person who shuts down, the person who screams or the person who moves on? OR, do you want to be the manager that deals with the situation?

Instead of generating a negative conversation, elevate the conversation – add positive energy to the conversation and your feedback. Take control of how you act – how you feel – what you own. Ask yourself:

¤  When I think someone is Rude, How do I act?
¤  When I think someone is Selfish, How do I act?
¤  When I think someone is Unsupportive, How do I act?
¤  When I think someone is Aggressive, How do I act?
¤  When I think someone is Taking More Than Their Share, How do I act?


More hate doesn’t beat someone else’s hate; more rudeness doesn’t beat someone else’s rudeness – they just breed more hate, rudeness and frustration.  The only thing that can beat negativity is respect and talking about it.  It doesn’t always fix the problem, but if you start showing respect and listening to the person who shows you hate, rudeness or frustration,  eventually everyone will see them as being the A$$#!*& – not you. Your reputation will improve. Theirs… not so much.

It is amazing what happens when you build trust / build respect between parties. With a base of trust two people could discuss and try a proposed solution quickly vs. discuss and debate it for hours or days. The beauty is that if you try you would both be able to quickly evaluate what worked / didn’t work and perhaps how to improve.  

If we keep telling ourselves difficult stories we will never find a mutually beneficial / satisfactory solution and office productivity and morale will go down as our stress levels go up. Having difficult conversations is far better better.

Happy communicating… mentoring… and training.

Click here to join our priority list to receive our latest Business Communication blog posts.

If you enjoyed this post we think you’ll like:

Bruce Mayhew Consulting is an Executive Coach who facilitates courses including Business Writing, Email Etiquette, Generational Differences, Time Management, Leadership and Mindfulness.

Bruce Mayhew on Canada AM

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Find answers to your Professional Development questions / needs at

Call us at 416.617.0462.

View Bruce Mayhew's profile on LinkedIn

Bruce Mayhew Consulting

I’d enjoy reading your comments on this post.

How To Deal With Difficult People… And Care For Yourself

I speak often about the value of Responding not Reacting when training clients how to deal with difficult people. I believe it’s a critical concept for individuals and companies looking to increase employee engagement, empower collaboration and improve productivity.

The difficult people we encounter may be upset family members, customers / suppliers, or associates. Whoever they are and whatever the reason they are triggered, they may be feeling:

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

  • Overwhelmed
  • Frustrated by a perceived previous lack of service
  • Disappointed
  • Embarrassed
  • Happy only when they are being negative

It really doesn’t matter who, what, when or where; the good news is that knowing how to deal with difficult people means we keep two important things top of mind:

  • Protect our own physical and emotional wellbeing
  • Most of the time every problem needs two solutions. By this I mean we have to find:
    • A personal, emotional resolution
    • A problem, logistical resolution

For Example: If I’m upset because of a manufacturer defect with my car, getting my car fixed will be important but the emotional distress of ‘feeling abandoned’ on the highway and missing an important meeting will be something to also address.

How To Deal With Difficult People: Tips

There are times when you wont be able to satisfy someone, but these tips will give you a place to start with people who do want a satisfactory resolution. 

  1. Practice Active Listening – be Mindful and listen with an open mind
  2. Don’t take someones aggression personally
  3. Turn off your ‘Autopilot’ and treat every situation as unique
  4. Use empathy and compassion to try to understand their point of view
  5. It’s good to say ‘I understand’ but don’t say ‘I agree’
  6. Be honest and sincere
  7. Respect how much time everyone is investing
  8. Sometimes it is good to go for a walk or take a moment to quietly care for yourself. 

Your manager is there to support and mentor you when you need it… but be careful of stressing out your co-workers or family. Also remember to share the problem with your manager, especially if it can be prevented for others in the future.


We all deserve to be happy at work and at home.

Sometimes we’re not going to be able to fix the situation no matter how mindful our intentions are. But, most of the time we’ll be able to make difficult people happy.

To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the
things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Happy communicating and dealing with difficult people effectively.

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Bruce Mayhew Consulting

If you enjoyed this post we think you’ll like:

Bruce Mayhew Consulting facilitates courses including Email Etiquette, Managing Difficult Conversations, Multigenerational Training, Time Management and Mindfulness.

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