Half Full or Half Empty: Negativity Kills Employee Engagement

By Jenna Cyprus

Employee engagement is a fickle thing. And while every individual has different needs, preferences and personality traits, widespread negativity is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it kill employee engagement, but it has the potential to tear your company culture apart at the seams.

Negativity: The silent killer of employee engagement

There’s a time and place for being critical in the workplace. Companies can’t improve and move forward without listening to what people have to say and correcting their mistakes. However, there’s a difference between constructive feedback and chronic negativity.

This is something management professor Russell Johnson and doctoral student Szu-Han Lin recently studied. They published their research findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology and the overall takeaway was that workplace negativity hurts employee engagement, which hampers productivity and erodes businesses from the inside out.

“The moral of this story is not that we want people to stop raising concerns within the company, because that can be extremely beneficial,” said Johnson, who is a faculty member in Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. “But constantly focusing on the negative can have a detrimental effect on the individual.”

Not only did Johnson and Lin discover that negativity hurts the overall business, but they also found that it has a detrimental impact on the employees themselves, who become less engaged. As Russell points out, “…They’re less likely to be cooperative and helpful, and they even exhibit deviant behaviors such as being verbally abusive and stealing from the employer.

In separate research, Emma Seppala, Ph.D., Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, found that positive work cultures are more productive as a result of having more engaged and loyal employees.

Whereas a lot of businesses purposefully develop high-stress, cut-throat cultures as a way of motivating employees to succeed, it’s usually not a good idea. A select few may thrive, but the majority become disengaged when they don’t feel valued, supported, and respected. And, as Seppala points out, the cost of disengagement is high.

“In studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents, and 60 percent more errors and defects,” Seppala notes. “In organizations with low employee engagement scores, they experienced 18 percent lower productivity, 16 percent lower profitability, 37 percent lower job growth, and 65 percent lower share price over time. Importantly, businesses with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100 percent more job applications.”

Another unsavory side effect related to employee negativity and disengagement involves customers. When employees are disengaged, they’re much more likely to deliver bad customer service. And according to an American Express study, customers tell an average of 21 people about a bad experience with a brand (compared to just eight when they have a positive experience).

Is negativity tearing your business apart?

Clearly, the research shows that negativity kills employee engagement, which hurts other areas of the organization. It’s essentially like a cancer. It may start with one cell, or one employee, but it can quickly spread to other parts and take down the entire body.

Do you feel like your business has a negativity problem? If so, you aren’t alone. It’s a pervasive issue in today’s business world, but you need to face it head-on. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Give practical advice. A lot of employees revert to negativity because it comes more naturally than positivity. Teach them how to view problems differently. As successful entrepreneur Sam Ovens says: “If I have a negative thought, I write it down. Then I reverse engineer, asking myself, ‘Where is this coming from?’ It took me a long time to fix [my mindset]. But I was able to rewire it all.”
  • Dig up the root. Very rarely are people negative just because they can be. In almost every instance, there’s some reason or cause. Your ability to uncover this will allow you to pull the weed up by the root, as opposed to just addressing the symptoms that are above ground.
  • Reassess hiring practices. Who you hire and how you onboard new employees have a huge impact on the health of your company and future engagement. Instead of just hiring based on qualifications and resume factors, take emotional health and personality into account. Try to identify optimists, as opposed to pessimists. Once you get enough optimistic people in your business, it starts to become contagious.

It can take months and even years to purge negativity from your organization, but you’ll be glad you did once you see the effects – namely that positivity fosters higher employee engagement.

Don’t let negativity fester

Negativity has a way of slowly building up over time before it bursts and causes widespread issues. From a managerial and leadership perspective, you can’t afford to let negativity fester until it reaches this point. As one recent study shows, passive leadership is positively related to incivility in the workplace – a telltale symptom of low employee engagement. Now’s the time to step up the plate and prioritize positivity and affirmation.

Image credit: Pexels

Jenna Cyprus is a freelance writer from Renton, WA who is particularly interested in travel, nature, and parenting. Follow her on Twitter.

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