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How to stop negativity from poisoning your team

(MoneyWatch) Trying to manage people who have a poor attitude can feel like a losing battle. Negativity, left unchecked, will eventually stunt team performance. The first step to reinstate the positive? Learning to distinguish real negativity from someone who simply doesn't agree with you.

"You want people on your team, in any profession, who challenge your thinking and ask the right questions,"  says Suzanne Bates, author of "Speak Like A CEO. "Asking questions that are constructive is not negative -- it's an asset."

But if someone really needs an attitude adjustment, here's how to help them:

Open your office door. Sometimes, consistent negative comments mean an employee feels unheard by their boss, and the fix couldn't be simpler. "Keep your door open so people feel comfortable coming in and talking with you informally about what's happening with the team," Bates says. Those conversations may also help you find out about a particular person creating an issue. If people are worried about "tattling," let them know that your conversation will be kept confidential -- and keep that promise.

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Pinpoint the person's problem. If someone has a sour attitude, figuring out the cause by talking to them one-on-one is crucial. "Ask open-ended, short questions to get to the root problem. Is your employee frustrated with her job activity, and if so, why? Are her skills being underutilized,, and if so, how?" suggests Anne Loehr, author of "Managing the Unmanageable: How to Motivate Even the Most Unruly Employee."

Encourage employees to contribute to a team-wide solution. It's important to ask for input from the group, as well as from the individuals involved. "One thing we find is that the antidote to negativity can be shared vulnerability. Ask each member of the team to how they have contributed to the current state" of the group, says Jim Haudan, author of "The Art of Engagement."

Then ask them to come up with a solution -- together. This is more effective than your dictating the new direction. "When the problem person describes what is to be done, it's more likely to happen," notes J. Robert Parkinson, co-author of "Becoming a Successful Manager." Have the group define details about goals and solutions and instruct them that it is their responsibility to help maintain this new code of conduct going forward.

Touch base on any future negative behavior. Once you've outlined a plan that has been created, and agreed on, by your team, check in with members individually and as a group to see how it's working -- or not. "Changes in negative behavior require time and attention. Permanent changes won't happen after a single meeting," Parkinson says. Adjust accordingly, and you should be able to keep a few negative people from dampening the positive spirit of the larger group.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Damian Yerrick