Example calendar of time-sucking negativity

How leaders can deal with time-sucking negativity

I recently chatted with an exceptional leader who radiates optimism, positivity, and kindness. He shared a current challenge he referred to as ‘time-sucking negativity.’ He felt like he was continuously addressing people’s concerns, problems, and grievances. Time-sucking negativity encompasses these unproductive interactions that leave leaders drained of time and energy.

So, as a leader, how can you effectively minimise time-sucking negativity? I gave it some thought and came up with these ideas.

Avoid approaches that backfire

Two approaches to time-sucking negativity seem like they might work, but they’ll probably not help in the long run.

Avoidance seldom works

Can you limit the time you spend addressing such issues? You could designate specific periods when you are unavailable for chats, such as mornings or afternoons, or even opt to work remotely occasionally. Establishing boundaries to avoid these conversations can initially alleviate the problem by reducing the time spent on them. However, it’s important to consider the potential drawbacks.

By disregarding certain issues, you risk leaving them unattended and unresolved. This accumulation of unaddressed concerns can gradually shape the beliefs and expectations of team members in unfavourable ways. Furthermore, team members might intensify their efforts to have their issues addressed, escalating situations and leading to even larger problems.

When you make yourself less accessible to the team, it sends a subtle message that they are not very important. Actions carry more weight than mere words, and that message seldom has good effects. It can can corrode the foundation of trust and rapport you’ve built with your team members. Additionally, reducing availability runs the risk of impeding critical lines of communication, resulting in a notable decline in overall productivity.

Fixing the issues seldom works either

Naturally, it’s commendable to address and resolve the issues raised by your team promptly. However, it’s essential to recognise that this very act may have contributed to the challenge you currently face. It might inadvertently reinforced the behaviour of team members coming to you with problems. It’s unlikely that such issues will ever be in short supply, so simply addressing every issue can perpetuate this cycle.

To rectify the team dynamic, it’s necessary to delve deeper into the underlying factors at play. What reinforces this recurring pattern of behaviour? By gaining a comprehensive understanding of these forces and implementing changes, you can begin to rectify the situation. Here, I present three strategies to explore and potentially transform the dynamics within your team.

Resolve resolvable value differences

Our values, motivations, attention, and behaviour often exhibit consistent patterns, which we commonly refer to as our personality. It’s worth considering that variances in personality might contribute to the occurrence of these so-called “time-sucking” conversations. As leaders, we typically don’t mind discussing issues that align with our personal priorities, even if they consume our time. It’s conversations that fail to resonate with us personally that tend to feel like they drain our time and energy. Personality differences can both fuel these “time-sucking” situations and present obstacles to their resolution.

Personality differences reflect value differences

For instance, as an optimistic leader, you may have a natural inclination towards seizing opportunities and embracing risk. You willingly get involved to maximise those opportunities, undeterred by potential challenges. On the other hand, team members with a more pessimistic outlook might lean towards mitigating threats. Their approach involves thoughtful consideration and proactive measures to prevent those threats from materialising. They raise such issues with you because they genuinely feel anxious about leaving risks unaddressed.

You genuinely listen to their concerns (remember the concept of “active listening”?). Despite that, you still struggle to fully grasp why these issues are significant to them while trivial to you. Why do they rely on you to handle these matters? What drives their consistent need to approach you with such concerns? These disparities stem from underlying differences in values, motivational orientation, and psychological needs.

Subsequently, you take action to address the issues raised. However, due to a lack of complete understanding, the steps you take tend to be ineffective. Unintentionally, the actions you choose may align more closely with your personal values and preferences. They may focus on embracing new possibilities rather than effectively mitigating perceived threats. Consequently, the situation changes, but the underlying needs of your more pessimistic team members remain unfulfilled.

So, what’s an effective alternative to navigating these dynamics and meeting the diverse needs of your team members?

Value discovery

Parents understand that what their child expresses as the issue may not truly be the underlying problem. The word “no” could actually be a way of saying, “I want to spend some quality time with you first”. This parallel holds true for leaders and team members as well.

Team members raise concerns when their personal needs are unmet. Conversely, when their needs are fulfilled, there is no need for them to raise such issues. It’s important to emphasise that these needs are individual and not necessarily aligned with the leader’s, project’s, or organisation’s needs. To establish mutually agreeable solutions that satisfy these needs, it becomes crucial to uncover the values associated with them. When the team feels their needs and values are satisfied, it puts money in their emotional bank accounts. Hassles no longer become a crisis of emotional bankruptcy. In other words, team members with satisfied psychological values will raise fewer complaints.

Team members with satisfied psychological values will raise fewer complaints.

So, how can you embark on value discovery? Allow me to share a few suggestions to guide you along the way.

  • Be intentional. Uncovering the values of your team members is a journey, and it’s crucial to wholeheartedly embrace this process. Make a conscious effort to consistently and persistently explore their values through everyday interactions. By actively pursuing this goal with perseverance, you’ll gradually uncover the path that leads you there. Moreover, being deliberate empowers you to take proactive measures in discovering and nurturing the values held by your team members.
  • Share observations without passing judgment. When faced with challenges, start by describing the situation in a manner that both parties can agree upon. This initial step can pave the way for a collaborative discussion, rather than triggering defensive reactions that hinder further progress.
  • Take their perspective. Empathise. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Listen attentively and envision the emotions they might be experiencing. Emotions serve as gateways to uncovering the underlying values, which is why it’s crucial to recognise and acknowledge them. Sometimes, individuals may struggle to articulate their own emotions, so you may need to make an educated guess at first. Remember, refrain from judging these emotions; instead, view them as valuable signals to better understand their needs and values.
  • Discover core values. In order to identify values, it’s important for you and your team to cultivate a shared language. Values serve as common threads that connect our personalities, motivations, and strengths. To generate ideas, consider exploring lists of strengths such as the VIA strengths and the Clifton strengths. Additionally, examining various facets of personality can provide a springboard for identifying values. While single words like ‘kindness’ can encapsulate values, it’s crucial to delve deeper and elaborate on their nuances.
  • Uncover value-aligned solutions. Once you’ve described the situations, empathised, and identified values, delve into potential solutions that align with these values. Remember, you can’t be the hero who single-handedly solves everything – your knowledge, understanding, and perspectives have their limits. Collaboration is key to surpassing those boundaries and discovering solutions that fulfil everyone’s needs, including your own. It needs long-term dedication, experimentation, and refinement.

Learning, not just reacting

Learning is a pivotal aspect of value discovery, but it often takes time. The alternative is quicker – simply reacting based on our existing knowledge. Consequently, amidst time pressures, taking time to learn is often skipped. How can we justify dedicating the time?

Adopting a long-term perspective is the key to justifying the time investment. Initially, spending an extra hour each month engaging in value discovery with someone may seem costly. However, it could save you several hours per month by identifying solutions that prevent issues arising in the first place. The long-term benefits of this investment are evident.

The great thing about values is that they tend to remain relatively stable over time. That means for one upfront time cost to uncover them, the benefits will last the lifespan of the team. Team members who know their values and those of others can work in ways that align more closely with them. This can create opportunities for enhanced performance, efficiency, and innovation. Furthermore, it establishes a fertile ground for interpersonal engagement, motivation, and well-being to flourish. The team can establish structures and processes that genuinely work better for everyone involved.

There’s another benefit to this kind of learning: you and team members might feel better. There’s now over 20 years of research showing that your emotional state can significantly influence thinking, behaviour, and effectiveness. Simply feeling better can help you and your team perform better.

Cultivate meaning to increase tolerance

While addressing value differences is important, there are times when conflicting values require a different approach. For instance, one person may prioritise caution, while another seeks greater risk for potentially greater rewards. However, certain situations may only permit one approach to be adopted.

Such scenarios often become breeding grounds for discontent and complaints, leading to uncomfortable experiences and frustration. While these challenges arise in all teams, some teams seem to handle them more adeptly. I suggest that these teams have developed a higher tolerance for such experiences. Team members willingly endure discomfort and are less inclined to engage in time-consuming conversations or complaints. What sets such teams apart?

Research suggests that the presence of meaning enhances our capacity to tolerate adversity. People are willing to endure hardship if it serves a meaningful purpose for them. With this understanding, can leaders infuse value conflicts with deeper meaning? I think so. There are no guidebooks, but meaning is built on values, so value discovery serves as a good starting point. Here are some more ideas to build on that.

Build task-based meaning

Creating meaning is an essential element of effective leadership. One major source of meaning lies in connecting the tasks at hand with a long-term vision for the project. This shared vision can imbue discomfort with a sense of purpose and significance.

However, it’s important to recognise that different team members will find different aspects of the vision more meaningful. Exceptional leaders craft a rich vision so that each individual on the team can resonate with at least some aspects. Share your own perspective of the vision, yet allow others to expand on it in ways that hold personal meaning for them.

Build team-based meaning

While task-based meaning is important, there’s another powerful source of meaning. This one stems from how the team operates, rather than the project itself. Exceptional leaders establish a clear vision for the team itself that help to guide how team members cooperate. This team-based vision can be equally impactful as the task-based vision.

By connecting value conflicts to this team-based vision, leaders can infuse them with meaning. For instance, expressing differing opinions can be uncomfortable and challenging. However, linking this process to the team’s shared vision and values, such as making sound decisions, can transform how the team experiences it. Meaning can transform the way in which people engage with situations – that’s why it’s so powerful.

Meaning can transform the way in which people engage with situations.

Embed meaning into processes

Recognising the significance of meaning, leaders should not solely rely on their own actions to foster it. With so many distractions, it becomes essential to embed meaning into regular processes. These might include annual reviews or specific stages of a project or product life cycle. Take the time to inquire about what individuals found meaningful or where they felt it was lacking. Instead of starting from scratch each time, build upon the aspects that team members have already identified as meaningful. Give lessons about meaning the same diligence as the lessons about tasks and projects. You could even articulate an explicit organisational development strategy aimed at nurturing meaning within the team.

Empower others to resolve issues themselves

If you find yourself inundated with time-consuming conversations, you might have too much of the authority. As a leader, you may unintentionally become a bottleneck for decision-making and conflict resolution. The challenge lies in share power without creating unproductive chaos.

Researchers have identified a potential solution to this challenge known as empowering leadership. Amundsen & Martinsen (2014) outline three key aspects of empowering leadership: (1) sharing power; (2) supporting motivation; and (3) developing the team. Empowering leadership promises many benefits, including enhanced performance and creativity (Lee et al., 2018), team member engagement, and leader effectiveness (Kim et al., 2018). However, how does empowering leadership look in practice? Let’s explore some practicalities.

Embed practices that empower

Research has identified specific behaviours associated with empowering leadership. Several studies, including those of Arnold et al. (2000), Konczak et al. (2000), and Ahearne et al. (2005), shed light on the practices of empowering leaders. Here are some key behaviours identified in their research:

  • Foster participative decision-making. Involve team members in decision-making processes and value their input.
  • Coach and develop team member skills. Support their growth and enable them to be effective with more autonomy.
  • Demonstrate concern and share information. Care about their well-being and share relevant information to enhance their effectiveness. This builds trust and encourages open communication.
  • Delegate authority, responsibility, and decision-making. Go beyond task delegation and empower team members to make decisions autonomously. Distribute power based on trust and experience.
  • Enhance meaning. Understand what team members find meaningful and align tasks, interactions, and processes accordingly. Adapt to individual personalities and values.
  • Build team members’ self-confidence. Research by Snyder et al. (1991) suggests you can build hope of reaching goals by clarifying them and highlighting the pathways to achieve them. Highlight team members’ enduring strengths and how they can contribute to overcoming challenges. When it comes to setbacks, highlight temporary causes that won’t be present next time.
  • Protect from bureaucratic constraints. Minimise unnecessary procedures that hinder productivity and disempower team members.
  • Lead by example. Behave in a manner that you expect from team members. Act as if you were a team member going through the process you want them to follow.

Establish supportive structures for empowerment

Implementing empowering leadership practices requires more than just relying on personal willpower. Sustainable change relies on creating suitable structures that support these practices. This section will explore structural considerations related to hierarchy, based on research by Lindy Greer at the University of Michigan. If you’re interested in delving deeper into these concepts, you can find additional details in her article and video.

  • Align authority with expertise. Research shows that social and psychological factors often overshadow expertise when it comes to distributing authority. Factors like social dominance, attractiveness, and existing associations can influence the allocation of authority. Many leaders tend to accumulate authority without considering the optimal balance, which can negatively impact their well-being and team performance. Prioritising expertise as the basis for authority distribution builds fairness and trust.
  • Promote specialisation and ownership. Expertise is often domain-specific, and authority can be divided accordingly to match the skills and knowledge of team members. While larger organisations often exhibit this principle in their structures, it can also be applied informally within teams. As a leader, you can share leadership responsibilities within specialised areas with those who are best suited for them. Specialisation can break from the formal hierarchy to adapt to the skill sets, strengths, and developmental trajectories of individuals.
  • Minimise power distance. Power (influence and control) can be distributed unevenly among team members. However, large power disparities within teams can undermine overall effectiveness. How can respected leaders reduce power distance when some team members may have less experience or knowledge? Greer suggests creating structures, such as specific times and places, where the hierarchy of influence and control does not apply. For instance, the Navy Seals remove their stripes at the door to the debriefing room and put them back on when they leave. This practice, called hierarchical flexing, helps limit the effects of power distance to only those situations where it is necessary.


As leaders, we can transform our team dynamics to minimise time-sucking negativity by embracing three essential strategies. The first strategy involves addressing resolvable value differences within our team. Sustained empathy, curiosity, and learning can establish a shared understanding of our team’s values and how they can be satisfied. This shift allows us to transcend unproductive discussions and cultivate a collaborative and more harmonious dynamic.

Secondly, building meaning is a powerful tool to increase tolerance to minor frustrations that might otherwise become time-suckers. By understanding and linking these frustrations to what team members value, we infuse them with purpose and significance. This newfound sense of meaning fosters greater resilience in the face of challenges that will reduce time-sucking conversations.

Lastly, empowering others to independently resolve issues can steer us away from the grip of time-sucking negativity. Redistributing authority based on expertise, giving areas of ownership, and minimizing power distance helps to create an environment that empowers team members. This alleviates the burden on leaders and fosters a culture that supports well-being as well as performance.

What do you think about these ideas? Do you think they’ll be useful? What else might be important? As always, I would appreciate your comments!

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Drawing on over a decade of research into the science of how individuals, leaders, and teams work best, Reuben is a trusted advisor and partner for navigating complex challenges. His articles distil complex ideas and present practical insights, so you don't have to do the research yourself. With an authentic approach and genuine empathy for his clients, Reuben is a valuable asset to any organisation.

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