How to Deal with Negative Behavior

How to Deal with Negative Behavior
August Friedrich: Fight of Cocks

A quick disclaimer before I jump into this evergreen topic in Engineering Management discussions: This article is about dealing with someone on your team. While some ideas might be useful in handling negativity from a peer, from your manager, or even within yourself, that’s not my focus area today.

The working title of this article was “How to Deal with Negative People”, but I think it’s more useful to focus on the behavior, not the person. You’ll make your life easier if you stop thinking like “Joe is negative” and more like “During the last team retro, the overwhelming criticism of the new product direction from Joe killed the discussion immediately”. This focus on the behavior is more likely to lead you to efficient action than characterizing someone as negative.

With these out of the door, let’s focus on negative behavior.

First, understand the context and behavior well, so you can separate feelings and facts, then decide how you want to handle them. I’ll list a few aspects you can take into account to address negative behavior efficiently.

Your relationship with the person

Trust is a prerequisite for all managerial work. You need to have the trust of your report, so they understand that you want the best for them. If you didn’t have the chance to build trust yet, but feel the need to address negative behavior, be mindful of the fact that you have less credit with them, and it’s going to be more difficult to effectively any behavior. Best case they’ll obey their new manager’s command without agreeing – in the worst case they brush it off as an opinion without context. Neither can lead to sustainable behavior change.

To help build trust, you can allow less strict behavior on One-on-Ones. It should be a safe space between you and your report, where it’s OK to display negative thoughts, let some steam out, and vent frustrations without any constructivity. Listen with curiosity and empathy, and acknowledge feelings without validating them (for example, instead of “You’re right, Joe’s behavior is unacceptable” say things like “I can see you really got pissed off by what Joe said”).

Make sure you pay attention to the impact of being on the receiving end of nonstop complaints can have on your well-being. It’s hard to stay positive and engaged if most of your energy is spent supporting others. Focus on the purpose you have, and how you’re helping your team by being there for them. It’s also important to ensure that you too have adequate support and a space to decompress from time to time.

The Impact their Negative Behaviour had

Usually, it’s more than just themselves, though self-deprecating negativity and low self-confidence can affect someone’s performance and career progress. If you suspect this is the case, transparency might help: Be open that you think they are being too hard on themselves and ask why it might be the case. Avoid generic praises to cheer them up, instead, find specific examples of recent achievements where they had concrete contributions. Remind them where they were a year or two ago, and work on a realistic career development plan with them that shows continuous growth. In case of failures, celebrate the learning opportunity, and explain how this experience and the lessons learned prepare them better for a similar challenge next time.

The impact of negative behavior often extends beyond the individual, affecting the team's morale and how they collaborate with others. This multiplier effect should encourage you to address the issue urgently. Give feedback on the behavior, objectively describing what happened, their actions, and the impact those had on others. Understanding the negative effect their actions can have on others might help mitigate, even if you fail to agree in some details.

Respect and civility

If they can’t respect their peers or manager, there’s not much foundation to build on. Make them understand that mutual respect is a prerequisite in a team, they need to follow the rules to be here. If they don’t want to, that’s fine, aim to minimize everyone’s pain and work towards moving them to another team, or more often, discuss options to leave the company.

Being disrespectful or bullying colleagues is unacceptable and should be addressed immediately to avoid making it seem OK. If you witness this happening, it’s a rare instance when giving corrective feedback in a group setting is the right thing to do. Make it short and clear, saying something like “Don’t talk like this to Francis again, it’s disrespectful.”, and then move on, addressing it further during a 1:1. If you choose to stay quiet, you implicitly approve misbehavior, and it will harm the team more than them having to witness one of their peers being disciplined in front of the group.

If the situation justifies, especially when it was not the first case, issue a written warning and consider involving HR. Regardless of technical performance or tenure, you shouldn’t make compromises on respect, because the entire team will suffer the consequences.


Processing upsetting news and difficult decisions is often challenging due to the lack of full context. You, as a manager, might have more information than your reports. Share what you can, to help them understand others’ points of view. (Make sure you respect privacy and confidentiality though.) Even if you can’t add more, you can help them understand that there are multiple contexts and extra information that we might miss.

Similarly, be empathic with your report. Understand their context, and what made them react so negatively. Maybe there are external circumstances in their private life that impact their mood. Be curious and understanding, but also be clear that while there are things that can explain bad behavior, they rarely make it right.

Passionate Concern

During my career, I witnessed multiple times that a strong display of negativity was rooted in a deep care about the product, the team, the company, and its values. If you’re leading a healthy team, it’s full of caring people, and if decisions go against what they believe would be the best for the things they care about, then the increasing frustration can explode into surprisingly strong negative emotions.

This kind of behavior often impacts collaboration with other teams and functions, which counterintuitively leads to ignoring the negative opinion of the concerned person. (They use strong words to underline the importance of their opinion - but the language they chose is so off-putting that it has the opposite effect.) This is the angle you can use: efficiency. They obviously care about the decision, and they have the expertise to make an important comment — but nobody pays attention because they can’t see past the way the comment was made. Their communication was inefficient! So if they care deeply about something, they should learn how to efficiently communicate their concerns.

In these cases, I found it useful to suggest to the person on my team to move away from written communication and schedule a quick meeting instead. Even if they don’t reach an agreement, there’s a great chance that they’ll both walk away with a better understanding of each other’s perspective. At the very minimum, the impact of negativity was localized to the other person and not displayed to the whole company.

Another approach that can help is reframing criticism into challenges to overcome. Just showing initial support for the proposal and looking for things that need to happen to make it a success (even if they are unlikely or impractical) can help move the discussion to a constructive phase. For example, instead of writing (exaggerating on purpose to make a point):

“It’s not just disrespectful to those whose day job this is, but almost delusional to think that with zero experience in mail transport systems, you can just pull something like this off in a few weeks. Do you have any idea how little it takes to get onto a spam blacklist, and how painfully long it is to be removed?!”

How about this:

“In order to make a home-grown email-sending system work, we should ensure there are hard API limits that prevent malicious users to abuse the system. Also, we are going to have to implement SPF, DKIM, and DMARC to ensure our sender domain's legitimacy if we don’t want to rely on any well-estabilished thirdparties.”

Finally, note that I didn’t use the bring solutions, not problems argument. I’m not a big fan of this approach, there's a risk that it gets interpreted as “I don’t care about your opinion” or “Do it better if you’re so smart”. I believe that there is a way to bring up problems without solutions. But if someone’s doing that, they should make sure they are using a constructive, supportive, and collaborative approach, and not just complaining carelessly.

Scope of control

Oftentimes negative behavior is a result of worries and anxiety, and a lot of things people worry about are rooted in externalities that they can’t impact. While not dismissing their feelings, it might be helpful to show them this paradox: that they are trying to find ways to change the chance of an event — something that their actions have no way to impact. Of course, this leads to anxiety.

A more productive mindset is identifying what one can impact, and focusing on those areas. I found this separation of “things we can and cannot control” especially useful in difficult times: during company leadership change, acquisitions, financial struggles, or radical market shifts. These events come with a lot of uncertainty, and directing focus on areas where people can maintain a sense of control can help alleviate their anxiety.

Depending on the change, you can also try showing what development opportunities this might mean to the person. For example, if the company decides to end on-premise hosting and move everything to the cloud — it can be a good opportunity to learn new tech skills. We’re being acquired by a corporation — so there will be useful new experiences in collaboration and synchronizing processes. This framing can’t be applied to all cases, but where it’s appropriate, it has the potential of a huge positive impact.

Disagree and commit

Sometimes there’s not much left to do but disagree with a decision and implement it. There’s an emphasis on both aspects. It’s important to have a culture where it’s safe to disagree, raise concerns, challenge, and argue. The opposite would be a hive mind or a dictatorship. We need the diversity of voices to be heard to ensure the best decisions are made.

However, there is time for debate and time for action. Once a decision is made, it’s time to implement, monitor, and learn from the results. If someone is re-raising addressed concerns, and re-opening closed arguments, they are holding back progress, because the later we can start implementing something, the later we have the chance to learn from it.

This is an important aspect too: there are not many irreversible decisions. Giving people space to experiment and in case of failure, learn from it and adapt, is an important characteristic of lean organizations. Ruminating on decisions after the fact is poisoning the morale of both the person and the ones around them.


Behavior change is a long and hard process, so you need to continue supporting the person going through it.

Feedback, especially positive, reinforcing feedback can have a big impact. Spot examples of the new behavior, confirm that their actions were aligned with what was discussed, and if you can, show the positive impact they had.

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