Coping With Malcontents
By Michael R. Weber
They are everywhere. We have to deal with them everyday, and they can tear
apart an organization or a family. I am referring to negative people.
They are tremendous energy drainers for adults, children
and themselves. Negative people consume large financial and human
resources and usually stand in the way of new ideas and programs. Parents,
students and other staff members do not want to be around them. We become
emotionally upset with negative people, who are frequent targets of
complaint by others.
As school leaders, we become
frustrated with negative people and the draining effect they have on
everything and everybody they touch. Sometimes it becomes so difficult to
deal with the negativism that we start becoming negative ourselves. We try
to improve morale by accommodating some of their concerns, transferring
them to other assignments and sometimes providing honest feedback through
formal and informal evaluations.
none of these approaches usually results in long-term positive change.
Only when the negative person leaves do we see any change taking place.
With luck, no one else will step in to take his or her place.
Four years ago I set out on a quest to better understand negativism
and develop strategies to reduce its impact on staff members, students and
the overall school environment. I hoped to share what I learned about how
to deal effectively with negative people, improve the overall atmosphere
of a school district and increase the positive energy in classrooms. I
also wanted to keep my own negativism in check and protect myself from
getting dragged into the negativism. I realized personal change was
necessary if I had any hope of changing others.
After two years of research, interviews, observations
and field testing and after six months of writing, I led my first training
program titled “How To Deal With Negative People and Keep From Becoming
Negative Yourself” for a school district administrative team. Since then,
I’ve shared my training at state and national conventions. Clearly, many
of us face this challenge in our school communities. What follows are
practical suggestions that I hope will help you become a more positive
leader and enable you to deal more effectively with negative people and
* Visualize success.
Start by developing a picture in your mind of what you want to happen.
Visualize staff members being positive and supportive of one another along
with being respectful and nurturing toward students. See your principals
working together as a positive, cohesive team with you and the board of
Keep this vision firmly implanted in your mind because
this is what you will act on and move toward. If your vision becomes
clouded with negative pictures, overpower them with a more positive and
desirable vision. You will move in the direction of what you see.
* Know the realities.
There are four realities in dealing with negative people and
situations that exist independent of us and that no one can change. These
are as follows:
* Difficult people exist in all
areas of life and are everywhere. They cause problems for everyone they
come in contact with on a daily basis.
people cannot be forced to change. They can only change themselves. All
you can do is set the stage and the environment for them to want to
change. Change in negative people is an internal process that requires
patience and tenacity.
* Understanding what makes
negative people tick and what makes them do what they do reduces your
stress and increases your ability to change the organizational atmosphere.
It also makes your life a lot easier. A bit of insight produces calmness
* No single book or recipe exists
on how to deal with negative people. It is not like making a cake where
you put in the ingredients in certain portions, mix them up, bake and out
comes a finished cake (a positive person). You
are dealing with complex and changeable human beings who all look at life
differently and react to situations differently. What you can do is
develop some coping techniques and skills to use when faced with negative
people and situations.
* Appreciate humor.
You need to appreciate humor and maintain a light-hearted approach to
your challenges. You can set the tone for the district and give permission
for others to enjoy their jobs by your example and support of the positive
energizers in your organization. Your example will help them assist you in
keeping others upbeat and positive to reduce the impact of negative
Maintaining a good sense of humor
accomplishes the following: Helps you lighten up and keeps things in
proper perspective; increases your immune system; encourages people to
spend time with you; helps you think more clearly; helps you live a longer
and happier life; and allows you to become a good role model for others,
which in turn begins to change the organizational atmosphere.
During an especially difficult school board meeting last
October, several parents shared some strong feelings about 1st-grade class
size in two of our elementary buildings. During the discussion, I shared a
humorous experience involving one of our 1st-graders. One of the parents
and the board president added to the story. Everyone in the room laughed,
reducing the tension and enabling us to get down to the business of
resolving a significant challenge under almost impossible budget
restrictions. When the board members concluded their deliberations and
took final action, they received applause from the parents.
Reducing the tension in the room by using humor and
maintaining an upbeat, positive and respectful environment resulted in
discovering a solution to the class size problem when there appeared to be
no workable alternative.
* Surround negative
people with positive staff members.
You can increase the positive energy in your school district and
within classrooms and schools by surrounding negative people with positive
people who enjoy life. Make certain every person you hire from this moment
on has a positive and optimistic approach to students, other staff members
Use a positive attitude questionnaire to screen
candidates during the hiring process. I have developed a 12-question
positive attitude employee-selection survey with a rating scale to
determine the attitude an individual will possess once hired. The survey
has proven to be 98 percent effective within three districts and several
corporations. You can create your own questions based on recent research
and training related to dealing effectively with negative people. Also,
you should field test your questions on several positive people to
determine the validity of your questions and establish consistency in the
As you move toward your vision of a
more positive school environment, the interview process becomes critical
to surround negative people with positive, energetic staff members who
enjoy life and want to make a difference in the lives of others.
Reinforcing this positive attitude through your role modeling and verbal
and written feedback will have significant positive impact in each one of
your school buildings and throughout the district.
* Be an absolute role model.
You must walk the talk. Staff members, students, parents, the
community and board members must see you as a strong leader with positive
solutions to almost any challenge. For example, when I visit the schools,
I smile and say “hi” to the students and staff members and ask them
questions. This demonstrates interest in their activities and brightens
their day. The key is to smile, have an upbeat attitude and demonstrate a
genuine interest in their lives.
board members and your administrative team are interested in positive
solutions and options to problems. What they do not need is the top school
leader lamenting over budget, state/federal regulations or any number of
other challenges. Instead, outline the problem in a factual calm manner
and then present several options for solving the problem. As Henry Ford
reportedly said: “Yes, we have a significant problem. I am not sure what
we are going to do, but here is one thing we can do right now.” Board
members, communities, and other administrators are looking for positive
solution-oriented leadership from someone who is not overwhelmed by
One thought that runs through my mind
over and over again is this: “There is always a solution; find a way, find
a way.” Lead by example and monitor your own behavior and attitude. When
you begin to slip, catch yourself, adjust your thinking and move forward.
Keep the following in mind as a barometer of your attitude: “You know you
are becoming negative when you blame others for your problems.”
Therefore, guard getting yourself sucked into negative
downward spirals. Do not participate in negative conversations or share in
other’s negative emotions. Control your own attitude and emotion.
* Understand psychology.
Learn about the psychology of negativism. Negative people are using
their attitude to control you and obtain something. Each time you or your
staff members get pulled into a negative downward spiral, negativism is
reinforced and it intensifies. Negative people continue their negative
habits so long as they are getting their desired control and reactions
from others. Negative people are much like children in that they will get
attention one way or another. If children do not get positive attention,
they will misbehave, resulting in negative attention, because negative
attention is better than no attention at all.
Negative people operate in the same manner. In addition,
negative people have developed habits of reacting and interacting with
their work environment. These habits are subconscious and will continue if
you react to them in the same manner. Therefore, breaking this pattern is
important for school leaders. For example, I was working with a bus driver
who was exceptionally negative and constantly complaining about
everything. In her mind, if it wasn’t negative it wasn’t real. One day
during a meeting with the district bus drivers to explain new
transportation routes, she began complaining about being underpaid,
dealing with disrespectful students and never having input in the
decisions about routes. I said, “You might be right, so you have two
choices. You decide. First, you can stay with your present route and get
less pay because of less mileage or secondly you take the new route with
more mileage and more salary. It is your choice, and I will support
whatever you choose.”
My offer disrupted her
pattern because I did not get frustrated or angry; I just offered her two
positive choices in a calm and supportive manner. Two weeks later, she
apologized for her attitude and stated, “There are a lot of negative
people out there, and I’m not going to be one of them.”
You also can break the cycle by learning more about the
psychology of negativism and using techniques such as reframing.
* Reframe negativism into positive energy.
Reframing is an excellent way to break the negative attention cycle,
and it helps prevent you from getting pulled into the negative downward
spiral. For example, if you say, “It sure is a nice day today,” and the
negative person, perhaps your central-office receptionist, responds,
“Yeah, but it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” You agree with her, saying,
“Yes it is supposed to rain tomorrow,” and then reframe, “but I’m going to
enjoy the day while it is here.”
You receive a telephone call from a negative community resident who
complains to you, “We sure have a lot of dead wood in this school
district. What are you going to do about it?” After you solicit additional
information by asking for specifics, you can reframe the negative
statement this way: “Yes, like any organization, our school district has a
few staff members who need some assistance and redirection. Overall, we
have an excellent and dedicated group of staff members who genuinely care
about children and their education. We have a comprehensive evaluation
system that assists us in helping our weaker staff members improve.”
The idea in reframing is to look for neutral agreement, and
then redirect the negative in a positive direction. Many of us do
reframing as a habit in our day-to-day conversations with people. When you
are dealing with a negative person, reframing becomes critical, and you
should make a conscious ongoing effort to reframe negative conversations.
* Use your emotional bank.
Another good way to break the negative reinforcement cycle is to use a
concept called an emotional bank. In any relationship, an emotional
connection develops, and the strength and enduring qualities of the
relationship depend on the strength of the emotional bank between people.
An emotional bank is similar to a savings account in that
you put money aside so that when you meet difficult times, you have
something to draw on. If you have built up a strong emotional bank within
a relationship, you will have something to fall back on when the
relationship hits rocky times. For example, if one of your trusted
central-office support staffers makes a mistake, you are able to support
that employee and provide him with direction to learn from the mistake
because you may have built up a strong emotional bank with that person.
Emotional banks are developed and strengthened in two ways.
Anytime honest positive feedback is provided to someone, the emotional
bank with them increases. Also, anytime someone else’s needs are put
first, the emotional bank is strengthened. For example, if a husband and
wife come home from work and one says, “Boy, did I have a rough day
today,” and the partner responds, “You think your day was bad, let me tell
you about mine,” one of them will need to set aside his or her needs to
compassionately and empathetically listen to and support the other. When
this occurs, an emotional bank is strengthened.
Another example: If you and a principal are frustrated
with each other, you might schedule a time to discuss the issues. If you
allow the principal to speak first by asking questions and listening
empathetically and carefully, you strengthen the emotional connection. In
addition, the principal will be more receptive to your thoughts and ideas,
and you may even change your views based on what you have heard.
Most negative people rarely have anyone strengthening
their emotional bank. They are lonely, have poor self-esteem and have not
received much positive feedback. Therefore, leaders need to look for ways
to provide honest positive feedback to negative people to assist them in
building up their emotional bank and their relationships with you and
others. Each time you can provide positive feedback to negative people,
they begin to change. They start to look at the world differently, and
they change in the manner in which they interact with you.
By building these relationships with negative people and
reframing to interrupt negative people’s patterns, you become more
effective in dealing with them and assisting them in wanting to make
changes. This leads into the need for you to change your attitude toward
* You must change first.
If you are truly going to assist negative people in changing, you must
change your attitude toward them. School leaders must have the compassion
and empathy to understand how depressing a negative person’s world must be
Negative people often have confirmed
significant negative situations in their life and are manifesting them
through their outward anger and frustration. By providing compassion and
understanding, negative people will sense your caring, become more
comfortable with you, and actually follow your lead in moving the
organizational atmosphere in a positive direction.
Finally, take a good, hard and honest look at yourself.
What are you doing to contribute to the negative status quo? This requires
personal insight, not strategic planning, site-based management,
organizational change theory or any other type of usual external
leadership reactions. Changing a negative person or negative
organizational climate is an emotionally charged internal issue. Make
attitude, wellness and positive solutions a theme in your organization.
Provide the leadership, initiative and financial resources to help
everyone in your school district build up each other’s emotional banks and
those of the students to improve the environment and enhance learning.
Through your lead, this can be accomplished. It requires
time, patience, focus and perseverance. As you surround negative people
with positive energetic staff members who enjoy life, the entire school
environment will change and negative people will be forced to change too
or move on. The place to start is with yourself and then your principals,
and slowly and systemically you, the board, parents, the community and
even the students will begin noticing the changes. Positive energy then
replaces the old habits of negativity and whininess.
Michael Weber is
superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville School District, 100 W.
Monroe St., Port Washington, WI 53074. E-mail:
American Association of School Administrators
1801 North Moore Street • Arlington, VA 22209-1813