Turning Negative Employees into Positive Assets


Incessant – and often insidious and covert – complaining about other colleagues and/or the managers(s), about perceived shortcomings in the ways things are done, or not done, can have a powerful impact on the morale and productivity of a salon, spa or clinic. This in turn inevitably filters through to clients who get ‘the vibe’ and are deterred by it.

Because negative employees are usually regarded in a poor light, this may in turn deter ‘positive’ ones from voicing legitimate concerns or offering constructive opinions for change for fear of being labelled ‘whingers’ and banished to the negative naughty corner. Which is also to the detriment of a business.

Jeremy McCarthy, group director of spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, has made the case for negative employees – saying that when people are negative about something, it means they really care. Further, that listening to what they have to say harnessing their negativity to make improvements can turn them into a positive business asset.

Jeremy teaches a course on Positive Leadership in the US to help leaders create cultures that foster greater employee engagement.

‘Every year in the course we hold one discussion around negative employees,’ he says. ‘I ask my students `What is worse – a negative employee or an apathetic one?’

‘Invariably they are divided on this point. Fears of the contagious nature of negativity mean students see this type of employee as more of a threat to business than an apathetic colleague – who contributes only the minimum.’ ”””

However Jeremy, who has an advanced degree in positive psychology, says negative or anxious staff members are needed to alert positive team members when mistakes are being made.

‘You don’t want to create a culture where people can’t come to you with problems,’ he says. ‘There is a time and a place for negativity in any organisation.

‘In one of the spas that I managed, I pulled one of the more negative employees aside and asked for her help. She was the one most likely to be complaining about things to her colleagues in the break room so I said, ‘I can tell you really care about how things go around here and you are holding us to a higher standard. I’d like you to help us get better.

‘Can you start coming to our weekly management meeting and presenting us the biggest problems in the spa from the employees’ point of view’.

‘Negative employees can be an asset to a business’s perspective along with proposed solutions. I was taking the energy and passion that [aforementioned employee] clearly had, and trying to use it for good instead of evil.

‘She became a huge asset to the team, a leader among her colleagues and helped us to be an even better place to work. Being a leader is not about eliminating negativity. It’s about recognising the different strengths on your team and allowing them to spring forth for the betterment of the business.’

Jeremy says that a hospitality executive once told him he had a playful stance on maintaining a positive attitude in the workplace and his mantra with his team was ‘If you are negative, I will kill you’.

‘Knowing that I had a degree in positive psychology, he expected me to embrace his negativity towards negativity’ approach,’ he says. ‘But I surprised him when I told him he might be making a mistake.

‘Don’t get me wrong – I am as much of an advocate of positive attitudes as the next guy. I’d rather have a positive attitude, and I’d rather be surrounded by others who do.

‘Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to this question, and it invariably sparks an interesting discussion. Some will recognise that an apathetic employee can be a drain on the system as they collect a pay cheque but contribute minimally to the goals of the organisation.

‘But most of my students will say the negative employee is worse, citing`one bad apple can spoil the bunch’.’

Jeremy draws attention to psychology researchers Todd Kashdan’ and Robert Biswas-Diener’s new book, The Upside of Your Darkside, that says ‘you need an anxious person on your team [because they serve as] the canary in the mine shaft, alerting you to problems before your more optimistic team members even become aware of them. You need someone who will tell you when you are making a mistake.’

Concludes Jeremy: ‘Being a leader is not about eliminating negativity. It is about recognising the different strengths on your team and allowing them to spring forth for the betterment of the business.

‘As you look at your own team, notice who the complainers are but don’t kill them. Thank them for keeping you on your toes.’



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