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Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Conditions of change. The only constant for leadership, management and organisation. How to plan change. How to implement change. How to react to change. How to cope with change. 

How do people deal with conditions of constant change?  Research suggests in three ways. In the exciting terminology of business, people can be early adopters or late adopters to change. In between, a range of middle-stage adopters. You can read vital research on the exact percentages if you wish. 

This article is about how badly we understand the middle-stage adopters. How our fear of failing to change has marginalised them. And turned them into focus pieces.

Marginalised focus! That's oxymoronic. A paradox. How can this be?

Because change "science" tells us we must focus our efforts on this group. Work hard to get them accept and cope with change. Train, teach, guide, cajole and bully them. For if they don't go along with it, then change overpowers the company. Hence the focus. 

The marginalisation happens because of our misplaced trust in planning and managing change. We are so sure what we have planned to deliver is the right way. The best way. The only way. So sure that we lose sight of the value of other opinions. Other insights. Other perspectives.

So, we coach and train away other points of view. All the valuable nuances of the middle-range are lost to sight. The only motivation for management is to prevent them becoming negative. Which, paradoxically, is making them negative.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our irrational fear of the negative employee is creating the negative employee!

But away from these dry terminologies. To explore this claim, we need a perspective change of our own. Something more poetic. So let's call these three groups the Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

  • The bewitched are engrossed with change, throwing themselves into new practice and processes with zeal.
  • The bothered resist change, cynically disrupting the new in an often forlorn attempt to cling onto the old.
  • The bewildered are seen as not fully understanding change, needing a guiding hand to help them cope.

The response of the average HR manager? Embrace the first, lose the second, train the third. 

It is far too simplistic to perceive things this way. Perhaps even self-defeating. Those that embrace or reject the change immediately are actually exhibiting narrow-minded thinking. Rigid defences against ambiguity and uncertainty. Which can be psychologically unhealthy long-term. Prevent the kind of creative thought necessary to deliver innovation and disruption. The very things companies are desperately crying out for. 

But many of the bewildered aren't actually bewildered. They are just not locked into one-dimensional thinking. They can cope with duality. And incongruity. See the good and bad sides of change initiatives and plans. Treating them as people who just need time to adapt is doing them a disservice. 

But we don't see this. Why? Because we live in an irrational fear of employee negativity. That any kind of doubt, criticism or hesitation must be swept away. That only positive enthusiasm has value.

Which means the value they offer disappears from view. We don't see how they cope with conditions of constant change. We are blind to it. We can't see them as anything other than bewildered. People who need help to live in the modern managerial world. And, over time, as potentially difficult people. Thorns in our side. Problems to be solved. But this is far from the case. 

These "bewildered" people understand the importance of business imperatives and why companies need to change to survive. But they see gaps in how it works in practice.  And they feel change managers and external consultants are missing this vital knowledge. Stuff that adds real value to the company.

They are not bewildered because they don't understand conditions of change. They are bewildered because they can't understand why their practical experience is ignored. 

They then communicate this critically. Which is perceived as a threat to authority. Something to be stamped out. This has led to people confusing critical thought with destructive negativity. It's a terrible misreading. 

Yes, some people are destructively negative towards change. But many are just critical about how companies deal with it. Can offer much needed insight if management will listen to them. But, in this confusion between critical thought and destructive negativity, they are sidelined. Seen as resisting. Cynical, negative nellies. Not part of the team. 

That is massively, massively unhelpful. And a core reason that disengagement and lack of faith in leadership are running at 85% plus. We need to rethink how we think of the bewildered. Stop thinking of them as middle-stage adopters who merely need a helping hand to adjust.

Negative Engagement

And start thinking of them as being negatively engaged with change.

How can we recognise a negatively engaged employee? There are three clues. Their perspective. Their performance.  Their personality.

Perspective: They have always seen the link between their specialised role and organisational imperatives.  They have consistently demonstrated their value in adapting their role to changing market conditions. But they have now lost sight of the link. Don't comprehend the need to adapt. Not because they are bewildered. But because the link and need are not clear. 

Performance: They are aware of the problems of speaking truth to power directly. So they don't often express criticism directly. But civilly. With style. And elegance. Often through jokes, witticisms and other ironic methods. You might even call it sophisticated buffoonery

Personality: They never seem to get unduly stressed. They tread lightly on the tightrope between over-committed burn-out and under-committed laziness. They easily adapt to different personalities, demands and expectations.

So, they have consistently demonstrated engagement with their role. They have an elegant communication style and exhibit psychological calmness.  And, for some reason, because of this one new change, they are confused or bewildered? Needing a helping hand? Are becoming negative and cynical? It doesn't make sense!

Most of us will know, or be, somebody like that. They are common to most organisations. When somebody like that seems in doubt or confused, there will be a reason. And management should listen to it. 

By failing to identify negatively engaged employees, organisations risk re-training them to death. This creates a fully disengaged employee who feels management does not appreciate their skill-set, contributions, experience and qualifications.

It also risks ongoing change undermining the increasing effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation. The very things change programs are supposed to improve.  Because vital skills and knowledge get missed or ignored.

Negatively engaged employees can add practical experience, knowledge of their role, adaptive agility and massive value.  By identifying them, organisations can avoid cookie-cutter change and produce innovative and unexpected solutions for the organisation's unique demands.

But to do that, we've got to stop fearing negativity. It's irrational. Without negativity, nothing much would change in the first place.

All innovation starts with negative engagement. If you are not frustrated with the limitations of the world, you have no motivation to better it. If you don't see the problems in a concept, you have no desire to improve it. If you are happy with your technology, you have no need to build something better. 

The level of frustration with leadership, management and organisation is reaching epidemic levels. It's being expressed in negativity. Much of which is genuinely destructive. And needs to be carefully dealt with.

But there are many negatively engaged employees out there. People who can make a serious difference to organisational performance. Use their experience with the practicalities of the organisation to help leaders and managers understand what is really going on. Which can help combat the wider negative feelings about leadership and managers out there. 

They are in your company. They can make a difference. But you have to identify them. And then work out how to listen to them.

HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!
Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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