WORKPLACE / MAR. 09, 2015
version 3, draft 3

The Cost Of Being Negative At Work


There was a storm recently when a report into the UK National Health Service revealed that whistleblowers were not supported or protected as much as they should be. With the importance of being able to speak out about things you perceive as being wrong in the workplace, this is not a good state of affairs at all.

Of course, we want employees to point the things they perceive as wrong, as that’s usually the only way that we can go about improving things.

A recent study highlights, however, how employees that do this may actually be doing themselves more harm than good.The emotional cost of pointing out problems.

The Emotional Cost of Pointing out Problems

See also: Are You Working In A Toxic Office?

The study reveals that highlighting things that are wrong in the workplace is likely to lead to both mental fatigue and also a defensive approach to work, which when combined will probably result in a fall in the productivity of the employee.

While this isn’t good, the study does however also suggest that when employees propose ways for things to get better, this can have a much more positive effect on their productivity.

The important thing, the researchers suggest, is to strike a good balance between highlighting the negative and proposing the positive.

"The moral of this story is not that we want people to stop raising concerns within the company, because that can be extremely beneficial," the researchers point out. "But constantly focusing on the negative can have a detrimental effect on the individual."

The authors believe that their study is the first of its kind and set out to explore the impact both negative and positive workplace suggestions can have on the person making the suggestions.

Two separate surveys were used on several hundred employees across a range of industries, including retail, manufacturing, healthcare and accounting.

The results revealed that employees who primarily focused on pointing out what is wrong with their organization may suffer mental fatigue.  They believe this is probably because they’re pointing out flaws in the work of their colleagues, which can cause tensions between them.

"The irony of that is, when people are mentally fatigued they’re less likely to point out problems anymore," the researchers say. "In addition, their own work performance suffers, 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."

What Should Companies Do?

The authors suggest that the best way to counter this phenomenon is to provide some kind of reward for employees whose suggestions lead to improvements.

"In that case, maybe other employees would be more accepting of someone pointing out errors if they know this is what the company wants them to do - that the person isn’t acting outside the norm," they say.

Of course, the key to all of this is to ensure that any ideas are actually implemented, as it’s only then that the improvements are made.  Developing a culture of experimentation is, therefore, crucial as it empowers employees to take responsibility for improvements they believe are long overdue.


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