Shedding light on negativity—Part 1

October 9, 2003
By: Vicki Bell

Read Part II.

Are you a negaholic—someone who almost always sees the glass as half or totally empty? Do you live or work with one? If you answered, "No" to both of these questions, I'd like to know what planet you live on.

These days—which are rife with economic uncertainty, corporate scandal, terrorist activities, war, and news reports heavy on the negative—negaholics have an abundance of negative information to satisfy their addictions and prove their core belief that the world is going to hell, and soon.

Programmed for Negativity

Negativity is a fact of life. We all exhibit negativity to some degree. According to some studies, our brains are hardwired with a negativity bias, a greater sensitivity to unpleasant experiences. Think about it for a moment. An average day typically includes both pleasant and unpleasant events. Which events stay with you longer? Do you recall the positive events at the end of the day, or do you dwell on the negative?

John Cacioppo, Ph.D. conducted studies at Ohio State University in which he showed people pictures of subjects that were known to evoke positive, negative, or neutral feelings. As the participants viewed the pictures, he recorded electrical activity in the brain's cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place. Cacioppo found that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it finds negative. He concluded that our attitudes are influenced more by gloomy news than good news.

In his article "Our Brain's Negative Bias" that appeared in the June 20, 2003 issue of Psychology Today, Hara Marano wrote, "Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm's way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it."

Separating the Good from the Bad

A certain amount of negativity isn't bad at all. Sometimes it brings to light problems that can and should be resolved. The truly destructive negativity is that which not only does not lead to positive change, but also festers and detrimentally affects those who live and work within the scope of the negaholic's influence. In the workplace, chronic negativity can spread throughout the organization, drain energy, waste time, set up roadblocks to change, and make the difference between a company's success and failure. Sometimes the only teamwork in a negativity-laden organization is the collective "we-can't."

Getting to the Source

Before anything can be done to combat negativity in the workplace effectively, you must be able to recognize it and understand its causes. Negativity can stem from a variety of sources, such as working conditions and miscommunication or poor communication from management. However, according to information found on, the major source of negative behavior is behavior that results from childlike needs. The following issues can lead to dissatisfaction and negativity:

  • Control
  • Boundaries
  • Abandonment
  • Denial
  • Independence/Dependence
  • Responsibility/Irresponsibility
  • Need to Be Liked
  • Authority
  • Need for Excitement and Chaos
  • Loyalties

Recognizing Negativity in Your Workplace

How can you tell if negativity exists in your workplace? Sometimes the noise of negativity is deafening. You hear the constant grumbling and long, loud sighs. At other times, the signals are less obvious. The Change Dynamics Web site offers the following as signs of negativity:

  • People's behavior is motivated by a desire to protect themselves.
  • People spend much of their conversational time criticizing or judging others, policies, or the organization.
  • The "I can'ts" have become addictive.
  • There is no consequence management.

The Three Styles of Negativity

Just as there are different sources and signs of negativity, there are different styles. Change Dynamics classifies these styles as internal, external, and verbal.

Internal negaholics internalize their negativity and become workaholics, control freaks or "know-it-all" experts. Their negativity often doesn't impact others until they break down because they haven't vented their frustrations.

External negaholics display destructive behaviors, such as backstabbing, rabble rousing, and martyrdom. They want everyone to know how they feel and will spend a considerable amount of time stirring up discontent.

Verbal negaholics also can be very destructive. They generate gossip, make cynical comments, and state apathetic comments that can spread the negativity like wildfire.

How to Know if You Have a Problem

As incredible as it may seem, the negaholic often doesn't recognize that he or she has and is a problem. Some negaholics believe that they're realists, simply stating the facts as they see them. When others suggest that they are negative, these negaholics may feel sorry for that person, believing that he or she is blind to the ills of the world or workplace. Or they may become angry at others' inability to see things their way. Either reaction increases the negaholic's negativity.

Excessive negativity can kill relationships, businesses, and the negaholic. Our thoughts have a way of manifesting themselves in our bodies. We all have heard stories of people who miraculously recovered from serious illnesses and the role their thoughts and attitudes played in their recoveries. If the power of positive thinking can perform miracles, the power of negative thinking can cause disastrous results.

How can you determine if your negativity is excessive and dangerous to yourself and others? Pay attention to the thoughts that enter your head. What are you telling yourself about yourself, your friends and loved ones, your coworkers, your managers, and the company you work for? Are these messages positive or negative? If negative, how can you change the negative to a positive? Are the majority of your thoughts positive or negative?

Change Dynamics suggests that you ask yourself the following questions to determine your attitude about the workplace:

  • Do you lack enjoyment or enthusiasm when you think of going to the organization?
  • Are you tired of inconsistencies in policy, communication, and direction?
  • Are certain philosophies and attitudes lauded, but not really practiced?
  • When a new program is introduced, do you think, "This too shall pass?"
  • Do you feel you can't make a difference?

The first step to overcoming negaholism is to recognize the problem. Part II of this series will discuss ways negaholics can become less negative and measures businesses can implement to reduce workplace negativity.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209