Whether you call it venting, kvetching, sounding off, ranting, bloviating, or just plain old complaining, negative talk is a very common human response to stress or adversity. We've all done it at one time or another, and sometimes, the catharsis it affords can be just what the doctor ordered.
However, what might be a perfectly harmless way to blow off a bit of steam after work can quickly sink morale when it becomes a constant feature of the on-the-job environment. Even a few staff members who have fallen into the habit of negative talk can harm the entire team's performance.
According to business communication expert Arthur H. Bell, author of You Can't Talk To Me That Way!: Stopping Toxic Language In the Workplace, it's impossible to prevent employees from ever uttering one less-than-positive word about the organization. In fact, you shouldn't even try -- everyone on the team can benefit from constructive criticism, and nothing kills motivation quicker than a stultifying environment in which employees are terrified to speak their minds.
Rather than attempting to squelch any and all forms of criticism, managers should learn how to differentiate between harmless, garden-variety grumbling and relentless, unproductive, potentially toxic complaining. When you notice a pattern of negative talk emerging, it's vital to confront the issue head-on. Use these tips to help root out and turn around negative talk in your organization.
Everybody gripes from time to time, but if a team member is falling into a rut of nonstop complaining, it's best to intervene before the destructive attitude begins to impact others. Stage a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental intervention in a one-on-one setting. Frame the meeting as an opportunity to reopen the lines of communication and ask for the employee's input.
One surefire way to overcome negative talk is to reverse the complaint into a positive statement. Although this may sound hopelessly optimistic, this doesn't have to be done in a glib "turn that frown upside down" manner; instead, reframe the employee's problem in a more positive, hopeful light. For example, if a team member is constantly complaining about never getting the days off she requests, ask for her input on improving the fairness of the shift scheduling process. Employees who feel empowered to tackle workplace issues are less likely to fall into the negative talk habit.
If you've noticed an outpouring of negative talk, it may be an indication that there is a genuine need for more discourse and discussion amongst the team. Develop multiple channels to allow employees to get their voices heard. Emphasize your open-door policy, set up a suggestion box, or schedule weekly "sound-off" sessions. Try to harness the truth behind the criticism and use this information to improve the organization.
As a manager, you're a natural target for team members' dissatisfaction. To them, you're the human face of the organization, the walking embodiment of the rules and regulations they may be chafing against. Nine times out of time, it's not really you that they're angry at, so try to take negative attacks aimed at you with a grain of salt. Most importantly, resist the urge to feed the cycle of negative talk by choosing your response carefully. Your clear commitment to eradicating negative talk will help set a civil tone that will positively influence your entire team.