Workplace lobby


Handling Negative Behaviour

It can be one of the most challenging issues to tackle...

Negative behaviour is something we have all experienced. Some people can be naturally negative in how they respond and act, while others can become negative given the wrong circumstances.

The truth is - negativity is like a virus. It can spread through a team, become a habit and affect productivity and profitability.

So as a manager and leader what can you do to spot the signs of negative behaviour, handle it effectively and ensure your team does not experience its consequences?

In this article we put the spotlight on negative behaviour and uncover some strategies you can use to tackle this challenging issue.

Defining ‘negative’ behaviour

What is negative behaviour? The better question is ‘what is positive behaviour’? Positive behaviour is the working representation of your company’s values. Therefore, negative behaviour can be defined as actions that are contrary to these values.

So, what causes negative behaviour?

When tackling negative behaviour, it is vital that you work out the root cause. Typically, the cause is either nature or nurture.

Did the organisation foster the behaviour or is it created by the individual?


  • Everyone is capable of negative behaviour.
  • Some people are naturally negative and will exude this behaviour.
  • Other people will become negative given the wrong circumstances.
  • Sometimes a person’s values and beliefs can be misaligned to your company’s values, resulting in behaviour perceived as contrary to the ‘norm’.


  • Has the organisation fostered a hostile working environment?
  • If the signs of negative behaviour are not spotted, and the behaviour is not tackled, it can quickly spread – becoming the accepted way of behaving.
  • Once negative behaviour takes hold within a team it is very difficult to eradicate.

Spotting the signs

When clearly presented it’s very easy to recognise the signs of negative behaviour. However, when confronted in a day-to-day situation it’s much harder. Look for patterns of behaviour over time, rather than focusing on a single incident. Some common signs of negative behaviours include:

  • Change in behaviour.
  • Change in communication style and pattern.
  • Change in performance (taking shortcuts, missing deadlines).
  • Absenteeism.
  • Conflict.
  • Shorter fuse.
  • Irritable Outbursts

Why you should address negative behaviour quickly

Negative behaviour is not likely to correct itself without intervention – if you don’t intervene, you have told the person symbolically that it is accepted, and they can get away with it.

By not dealing with it, you send the message that:

  • How they feel is more important than how others feel.
  • It’s ok to treat people like that. This behaviour is accepted.

The value of addressing negative behaviour can be seen in four key areas:

  • Effect on culture: Negative behaviour in the workplace fosters a hostile working environment.
  • Effect on team: Negative behaviours lower performance, productivity and morale.
  • Effect on business: Negative behaviour can also create limits on business and personnel growth opportunities. Legal issues: Ongoing negative behaviour can increase risks around company liability, and accusations of harassment, bullying, discrimination or marginalisation.

    How to handle negative behaviour

    We know negative behaviour can be challenging to manage, particularly if the employees involved don’t react well to confrontation. A five-step process to help you handle negative behaviour is detailed below.

    Step 1. Assess the situation

    Begin by assessing what you have observed and what your colleagues and clients have reported.

    Ensure you have a clear and objective understanding of the negative behaviour displayed by the individual. Don’t try to judge the person or pre-determine the root cause, as this may narrow your thinking.

    Step 2. Have a conversation

    It’s best to tackle negative behaviour early and quickly before it can escalate and cause damage.

    Once you’re ready to tackle the issue, initiate a confidential conversation with the individual...

    Find a quiet place, away from the team and close the door.

    Step 3. Be clear

    Clearly explain the observations you have made and the behaviour that has been reported to you.

    Focus on the behaviour you would like to address and not on the people involved.

    Step 4. Ask questions

    Once you have made your observations clear, allow the individual to respond. It’s likely they will express their feelings about the situation and it’s important you acknowledge how they feel.

    Next, ask constructive questions to get underneath and uncover the genuine reasons for their behaviour. Prompt the individual to consider their colleagues’ points of view. Remember there are always two sides to every story.

    • “How is your latest project going?”
    • “I understand that you feel this way.”
    • “Can you tell me how you view the health of your relationship with your team members?”
    • “I would like to hear your side of the story.”
    • “We need to find a solution where everybody can work effectively together.”


    Step 5. Resolve the situation

    Some people who exhibit negative behaviour will leave the organisation early on if their values are misaligned to those of the company. If you believe these differences can be resolved, you might be able to catch them early and keep the person.

    However, the reason some people continue to demonstrate negative behaviour is not because they are evil or scheming, it might actually be because they have blind spots to the impact of their own behaviour and their emotional intelligence is not well tuned.

    As you close out the conversation make sure you and the individual agree what behaviour needs to change and how they are going to implement those changes. Confirm the timeframe for behaviour to improve and be sure to book a follow-up meeting with them at the appropriate date. Finally, offer them support to help them ascertain the impact of their behaviour on others in the team (e.g. 360 degree feedback or training on emotional intelligence) and to build greater self-awareness.

    In summary, negative behaviour is a challenging issue that impacts not only your culture but also your overall business growth and performance. Handle negative behaviour early, be open to exploring the causes of negative behaviour and ensure you create a safe and harmonious working environment for all.