We're delighted to have collaborated on this piece with Pierre Landy, executive mentor to legal leaders and ex-GC at Yahoo, Ledger, and The Walt Disney Company. To learn more about Pierre, check out his Legal Spotlight here .
We meet all kinds of people at work and in life - extremely positive people (thank goodness!) But also some negative people who are capable of bringing down entire teams.
Negativity manifests itself in many ways, from constant complaining to passive-aggressive comments. Some people even have a tendency to block initiatives and criticize decisions (and not in a constructive way!). While both of these things can be useful, what I'm talking about here is a fully negative approach that offers no value (ie no solutions, only problems).
Too much negativity can prevent an entire organization from progressing or even innovating. Moreover, one negative attitude is enough to infiltrate the atmosphere, and thus block the success, of an entire team.
Therefore, it is imperative to identify people with a tendency to be negative and to manage them appropriately. Here are a few tips.
1. Make sure you've given the team the tools to be positive
First, be super clear about what you're expecting from the members of your team and lay out what will happen should anyone not opt-in to follow the team's way of working (or the 'rules' if you like). While it is acceptable for someone to not accept to follow the rules, they must understand that it will have significant consequences.
Bottom line, it all starts with the leader! The leader must clearly explain to their team which mountain they will be climbing together (or which project the legal team will be working on and how they will reach their goals).
The leader must define and share the strategy, the means to deliver on this, and the benefits and challenges that the team will face along this journey. With this knowledge, your team can buy into the approach, be part of the process and become motivated to do a good job.
Note that this is not the time to force motivation. You cannot go to each team member and say: “You are motivated! Right, Frank? You are motivated! ”. This won't work (at all). It has to be an authentic process of instilling motivation within your team. As the leader, you offer the strategic vision and each member of your team must then decide to opt-in of their own accord. If one person doesn't opt-in, then that's probably a sign that you might have a challenge on your hands… Roll up your sleeves as you'll need to solve this obstacle quickly!
2. Avoid recruiting negative people as much as possible (duh!)
Let's remember that everything starts with recruitment. Obviously, we try to recruit people who have a good attitude but sometimes negativity can slip through the net.
I cannot stress enough the importance of soft skills in recruitment! Particularly in the legal space, it can be easy to focus on legal expertise, but soft skills have a huge impact on the success of the individual and the team.
Try to spot the level of soft skills early on in the recruitment process. If you find yourself interviewing someone who has a negative take on matters or who speaks about experiences resentfully, be very careful! Obviously, it's important not to make assumptions so dig deep to understand whether something truly was a negative situation or whether this person has a tendency to create negative experiences for themselves and others.
Ask the right questions, especially behavioral ones. Before you make a decision that could have serious consequences for your team, try to explore the way the candidate functions in a team setting through the various interviews.
3. Constructively challenge negativity in your team
There are situations where you have no choice but to deal with a person with negative tendencies in your team. So, what should you do in this instance?
The truth is, many people don't even realize that they have a negative attitude; that they continually offer unconstructive criticism, skepticism, or malicious irony. So, take a moment to discuss this with the person in question.
“It feels like you're being quite negative. Why is this? What might be causing it? What can we do about it? How can I support you? ”. The idea is to help this member of your team to become aware of the fact that they are acting in a negative way in the hope that, following an honest and supportive conversation, the person realizes the error of their actions and revamps their attitude of their own accord.
Don't forget to always be kind - you never know what might be going on behind the scenes.
4. Encourages positive reframing
If someone is super negative, first and foremost, encourage the positive reframing of criticism. When dealing with a serial criticizer, I recommend graciously challenging them to reframe their comment in a positive way. The more you do this, the more easily the person will find themselves defaulting to a positive attitude.
5. Check yourself
As we've explored, positivity starts with the leader. So, do a little self-examination! How are you behaving? You are the role model of the entire legal team so you have to set the example of how you'd like others to behave. One example that people often find themselves guilty of on reflection is publicly moaning about the bureaucracy within the company. This has a negative impact on team morale and reduced productivity and quality of output as a result.
You set the tone, so live the values and principles that you wish to instill within your team.
6. The harsh reality
If, despite all of your attempts, nothing seems to be working and the person remains only to have a negative impact on the overall team atmosphere, there is no other option other than to remove them from the team. Remember, one negative personality can ruin a team of many.
As harsh and as difficult as it may seem, if you truly have exhausted all options, it is better to make the right decision promptly. The overall team is your priority! Your team members, their productivity, and their success will thank you for it in the longer term.
Avoiding and managing negative attitudes is just one part of the puzzle when it comes to building an effective team. Check out '5 levels to becoming a successful legal team' for more tips.