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How to Stop Negative Behavior from Escalating

talkingNegative behaviors come in many forms, but all are harmful to employees and the work environment. Even those who are not on the receiving end of negative behavior (e.g., witnesses) are affected. Though not all negative behavior rises to the egregious levels of harassment, discrimination or violence, all should be addressed by managers to ensure employees feel safe and engaged. Also, it's easier to step in early on, before it escalates.

This article will discuss negative behavior as a social phenomenon and warning signs it may be occurring in your workplace, and provide managers with useful tools for addressing it.

Negative behavior at work is costly for organizations. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association in 2010, negative behaviors at work cost organizations an estimated $300 billion dollars annually. These costs came as a result of higher turnover, higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and more.

Why is the cost so high, you might ask? For one, negative behaviors like bullying, unprofessionalism, and harassment are a social phenomenon. While those on the receiving end are typically hit the hardest, others around the target are also affected.

Here’s an example:

Pam is new to a call center. Her desk neighbor, Angela, has been there for five years. Angela often overhears Pam’s conversations and is quick to tell her when she does something incorrectly. When Pam asks a question, Angela says things like, “It’s really not that hard, Pam. What are you not understanding?” Angela says these things out in the open for everyone to hear.

Not only will Pam be affected (being on the receiving end of the behavior), but all those who work around the two also experience negativity. They might wonder if they’ll be next, or spend time gossiping about it. Just being around the negativity can disrupt their own productivity.

In addition, studies show that when less egregious behaviors like incivility occur but go unchecked, the behavior likely escalates into more frequent and aggressive behavior. The aggressor essentially gains permission to continue to act this way, and it becomes more and more normalized to them and those around them.

Managers play a key role in squashing negative behavior before it gets worse.

The first step is being able to identify when bad behaviors are plaguing the workplace, even if they aren’t receiving complaints or witnessing the behaviors firsthand. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that 75% of employees do not report harassment when they witness or experience it – and I suspect that carries over into other behaviors such as incivility and bullying.

Warning signs of toxic behaviors in the workplace include the following:

Communication breakdown.

Employees stop collaborating entirely to avoid toxic interactions. Miscommunication and lack of communication makes effective and efficient work impossible.

Higher absenteeism.

A toxic work environment can be taxing on employees, and so they call in sick to avoid the situation. Also note that hundreds and hundreds of research articles from around the world have identified correlations between toxic workplaces and psychological and physical damage.


Employees refrain from participating in conversations, afraid that any form of communicative interaction could result in toxic responses.

Decreased productivity and quality of work.

Employees spending time and energy on negativity obviously cannot be as productive as those who are in a positive environment, nor can they deliver the same level of work quality.

When managers notice these warning signs amongst their teams, they absolutely must step in, otherwise they’ll contribute to creating a toxic work environment for their employees.

Here are five tactics managers can use to address negative behaviors in their teams:

  • Set expectations when employees are hired. Employee onboarding is vital in communicating what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace. Make it a part of the onboarding process to go over expectations on both performance and behavior.
  • Collaboratively set expectations with the entire team. Bring employees together and ask them how they want to be treated at work. Then discuss how those behaviors should manifest in their interactions. In this way, the team can collaboratively set expectations for behavior, and it’s much easier to hold people accountable for rules they helped create.
  • Address all levels of negative behavior, even incivility, in the moment. When managers witness negative behaviors, even in a minor regard, there must be a form of acknowledgment and a response that shows the behavior is unacceptable.
  • Coach employees engaging in toxic behaviors. If a manager is aware of an employee that repeatedly engages in toxic behaviors, those employees should be provided coaching to ensure they understand why the behavior is toxic and how to make change.
  • Actively build trust with employees. Employees who trust their managers are more likely to bring negative behavior to their attention, and managers can be more effective in addressing the behavior early.

Whether it’s the financial consequences of lost productivity or the consequences of poor mental health, negative behavior leads to negative consequences. Managers and employees must work together to create civil environments that acknowledge, address, and remedy even the smallest of toxic actions. Look for the warning signs, address negative behaviors, and ensure every employee’s work environment is a safe and civil one.