Working With Negative People

February 21, 2011 / General /

By Shawn Quinn

I am often surprised at how many people are unhappy or even miserable at work.  I meet many executives who have to manage such people and find the task nearly hopeless.   If the positive lens has the transformational power that we believe it does, it should open some possibilities in regards to this challenge.  Here I will share a case of change.  I suspect that in considering this case, you may find ideas that will work for you.

I was teaching a course on positive leadership.   An executive complained about his very negative direct report.   I asked the executive to list the strengths of the negative person.   He told me that his direct report didn’t have the strengths required in his position.  I said, “I’m not worried about whether his strengths fit the job or not, I want to know what his strengths are?”  He could not see why the question was relevant.  I pushed him.  Finally he admitted that he could see no strengths.  So I asked, “If you can see no strengths in the person how do you think you impact this person?

This seemed to jolt my associate.  Our conversation became very authentic.  He vowed to take a new approach.  He went back and told his direct report that he needed to know him better so that he could support him more fully.  He acknowledged that the relationship seemed difficult and that he wanted to work with him to improve it.  The executive’s questions turned to what the man enjoyed doing.  What gave him energy?  What was he really good at? 

The man proceeded to indicate how his strengths did not fit his current job and how he hadn’t been very happy.  He proceeded to share some kinds of jobs he thought might be better.  His boss just listened.   They explored options and created a plan for how they would work together to help this man find a job that would allow him to thrive.  Within two months the man was in a role that he was excited about.

Here are some questions.  What was different about the executive on his trip home?  In talking to the troubled man, what was different about the executive’s attitude?  Did his attitude matter?  How many other positive outcomes were also possible here?  Do you know the strengths of the people you work with?  If you have someone who is struggling, how could you change yourself in such a way that it would allow them to change?  Please share your insights and questions.