Negativity from leadership staff can be incredibly toxic and contagious, so find ways to set and maintain boundaries.

Now seems like the perfect time to have a conversation about bad attitudes. They are as rampant as a virus right now, thanks to a virus. Just yesterday I got an email from someone in the industry who was looking for help and insight on how to best deal with negative attitudes and the “COVID Cranky” that is going around right now. Mind you, this person is an employee, not an owner. The cranky seems to be coming from the top down just as much as it is from within. So how do we best manage attitudes and company culture during stressful times?

Focus energy

The feedback I am getting from a lot of folks right now is that they simply do not know to how best direct their focus or energy. The feeling of loss of control has sent many into a spiral of frustration and negativity. These feelings can paralyze people. When I find myself in this situation, I typically turn to a “focus on what I can control” approach. Is there some task or project I can check off my list to redirect my mind in a better direction?

As an owner or manager, it is your job to figure this out and focus on what you can control to find a sense of balance — both for yourself and those working for you. That said, you may need help doing so. Do not hesitate to reach out to an advisor or coach to help you get back on track.

It is also your job to help your employees find focus. Do not just expect them to figure all of this out themselves. If your staff is feeling stressed and negative, sit down with them to identify certain tasks or projects where they can achieve meaningful progress. These tasks or projects do not need to be complicated or big picture. Small tasks related to basic organization or clean-up can go a long way to making someone feel purposeful and productive.

Watch your mouth

We are all guilty of complaining and venting our frustrations to the wrong people. Negativity from leadership staff can be incredibly toxic and contagious. When you have good relationships with your employees, it is often tempting to feel you can vent or complain to them in ways that may not really be great for their job performance. Plus, this dynamic often breaks down necessary boundaries that should exist between employer and employee. Now, certainly each person is different with their own level of fortitude, and you will have different thresholds of trust with each employee. It is your job to know what your limits are for each individual person, and when to keep your mouth shut.

Family feuds

Often, family businesses are guilty of treating their employees like family members. While this sounds nice on the surface, it rarely is. Disfunction or comfort levels that exist between family members often get transferred to employees. This is unfair and unprofessional. Your staff are not your family members, nor are they responsible for the bearing the same types of expectations you may have of a family member. Family business does not belong at the staff meeting table.

If you and your family business members are cranky and annoyed at one another, take those snippy conversations offline and out of public view. No exceptions. There is nothing that will make your employees more uncomfortable and unhappy than being forcibly included in your family feud. Remember, if you treat your employees like your children, expect them to act like your children. Do not complain about it when they do.

If you are an employee regularly subjected to such displays, it may behoove you to point out to the parties, “This seems like a private family conversation. We can reschedule our meeting if you’d like.”

Hashing out familial spats in front of employees will cause uncomfortable, awkward tension. Instead, air out any family grievances in private.

Pratice active listening

I know, I know. Active listening may sound like a bunch of hippy dippy nonsense to a lot of you. But it is a strategy that can be useful for owners and employees alike.

During intensely stressful times, we must all learn to better control our emotional responses. When someone snips at you or is demanding in a disrespectful way, a good strategy is to take a deep breath, then calmly repeat back to them what you interpreted they just said to you or want from you. Often, what you repeat back to them is not what they meant to communicate at all. Once presented with a reflection of their words, most reasonable people will reset their demeanor and make a better effort to communicate more clearly. It does not always work right away, but it can improve dynamics over time. I am still practicing.

Cultivate caring

It can be a tricky business to cultivate a culture of caring in your company, without crossing important employer/employee boundaries. As an owner or manager, focus on helping your employees be successful at their jobs. Their personal lives or struggles are typically not your business nor responsibility — nor things you can typically change for them. You can, however, indirectly improve such things by creating company dynamics that help people succeed professionally. When employees know you care about their job success, it goes a long way to improving morale.

If you do one thing regarding this issue, consider revamping your employee “review” process. Most of the time, these are negative stressful events that your staff dreads. An employee review should be less about what someone has done “wrong” or “right” over the course of a year, and more about a check in on your success together. As an owner or manager, you are just as much on the performance hook during an evaluation. Present reviews as a two-way team conversation and be willing to take constructive and critical feedback yourself. Do not attach them to raises; do those separately. Oh, and maybe bring cupcakes?

Do not forget to let yourself — and your staff — have a little fun now and then. And perhaps cut everyone a little slack right now. Now, more than ever, we could all use a bit more humor and lightheartedness in our day.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.