Negative Management

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Recently I was catching up with a friend who had changed jobs a few months prior. They were telling me that they were enjoying the work, the company and the people but were having some issues with how their manager communicated.

I listened to them describe a few scenarios, seeing that they clearly needed to get some stuff off their chest. As the stories were told they mentioned that even speaking with colleagues similar stories were happening in other parts of the business too. In fact anyone who reported into this particular manager all seemed to have the same gripe about how the received feedback.

To which I said: “It sounds like they have turned ‘negging’ into a management style.

What is Negging?

Negging is an act of emotional manipulation whereby a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the manipulator’s approval.

It is an insane approach to try and gain the attention of another human you are attracted to. Clearly devised by some sociopaths who should have been better educated on how to communicate with people. Somehow, sadly, it works and people do connect after being ‘negged’.

But after listening to my friend’s stories about their and their co-workers engagement with their manager it became obvious they this person had turned a dreadful ‘pick-up’ technique into an equally dreadful management style. One which, sadly, seemed to work.

The Negging Management Style

So how does it work?

Just as with the dating ‘neg’, management ‘negs’ involve a backhanded compliment on work that has nothing really wrong with it. In fact the whole point of giving the employee the neg is to instil in them a need to avoid getting a similar neg in the future.

It can be something as simple as requesting the font of a document be changed from Garamond to Times New Roman, while the content is torn apart for an hour before the manager admits there is nothing wrong with it. Maybe a spreadsheet has the font point at 11 instead of 10 or 12. The content is still perfect, but such a tiny change will have a person wonder how they could avoid similar feedback in the future.

It is, at the heart, a bad feedback tool that fits nicely in the realm of the micromanager. The sort who feel their input is required in everything and trust nobody to do the job without them. Then, when talented individuals show that they can perform as required, the micromanager has a ‘neg’ in the chamber ready to fire. Just to ensure the status quo is maintained — at least in their mind.

My Friend’s Neg

The clearest example of when this happened to my friend involved a questionnaire they had written that was to be sent out to customers.

My friend, with years of experience in the field they work in, had done countless questionnaires and how they were sent out usually garnered a very high return of answers. No small feat, given how often feedback questionnaires get relegated to the spam folder. With the campaign ready to go, my friend was called at nine p.m. by their manager.

I’m not happy with the questionnaire, we need to go over it in details now before you send it out.

Which they did. An hour of their night spent going over the questions line by line. The end result? No changes made at all besides the type of font used. Almost as if it was a power play by the manager. They had no qualms or queries about the language, content or questions themselves nor the way the campaign was structured. But changing from Times New Roman to Garamond made the ‘very well written’ questionnaire ‘excellent’.

The actual wording used at the end of the call.

The impact on my friend’s approach to work, however, was that they created a ‘template’ of the questionnaire with the format change (the one font change, to be precise) and saved it for future references. So that they could avoid having a repeat performance.

The neg had worked.

What is wrong with this approach?

Feedback is the most important skill a good manager needs to have. Without it, teams of truly talented individuals may suffer or even leave a company. Being able to give feedback in a constructive manner so that only growth happens is something everyone should strive for. That word, ‘constructive’, is important as there is a big difference between being ‘mean’ and being ‘helpful’ when giving somebody feedback.

People, regardless of what they might say or do, want to learn from their mistakes and get better. They want to help other people get better. Saying that a slide has a horrible colour scheme is not constructive. But suggesting that a different colour scheme might help viewers take in the information is. Language, as we all are learning daily, is important. Choose the right words for the right message.

Negs are not constructive feedback. If anything it can create a problem for the receiver that might damage their career. When all feedback is backhanded compliments designed to make you want more of them, what happens if you get a manager who wants to sit down and help you grow in your role through constructive feedback? You will always be looking for the ‘wrong’ comment and miss out on the full impact of the feedback.

There could be a case made that maybe, just maybe, Negative Managers have a particular way they want things done. If all the negs are around format instead of content, for example, isn’t it up to the employee to learn that? I would argue no. If a manager is bringing up formatting issues constantly they should provide a style guide or template document that people can use.

A much more constructive solution to the ‘problem’.

The Experiment

But there is an interesting twist to this tale. My friend performed an experiment to see if my theory was correct. If their manager really was trying to use negging as a tool or not.

When they next had a task that was going to be consumed by external folk, my friend happened to see that their manager had written an almost identical document several years before. Sure that their content was solid, they used this older document as a template. The finished piece actually looked nearly identical to the original aside from some updated stats. When their manager reviewed it the feedback came in about how the formatting looked wrong and needed to be redone.

But I used your old document from a similar pitch as my template. Exactly like you.

What changes should I make?
Ah, I’m sure it’s fine.

Proof that negative management is to be avoided, because when it gets pointed out people will be on the look out.




Head of Cloud Infra by day, gamer by night, author of a comedy-fantasy series called ‘Filthy Henry’ by twilight — Trust me, I always lie.

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Derek Power

Derek Power

Head of Cloud Infra by day, gamer by night, author of a comedy-fantasy series called ‘Filthy Henry’ by twilight — Trust me, I always lie.

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