November 6, 2003
Read Part I.
Negative thoughts, feelings, opinions, and comments are normal. Each of us thinks and expresses negative thoughts every day. Often the negatives illuminate problems that need to be addressed. When handled properly, they can lead to positive changes. But when negativity becomes chronic, systemic, nonproductive, and destructive, it's a problem in the workplace.
Do you ever have (and I hope you do) days when you head into your workplace in an especially good mood? Perhaps you've thought of something that can help you solve a problem, or you're working on an exciting project. Or you genuinely like your job and approach most workdays in a cheerful manner. How often are you able to get through the day without hearing an inordinate amount of complaints, gossip, and rumors?
It's so easy to become engulfed in others' negativity, particularly if the negaholic is a friend and you are an empathetic listener. But in your efforts to befriend your friend and empathize, you might be enabling the negaholic, diminishing your own well-being and contributing to a negative workplace culture.
One reader who commented on Part I of this series said, " [This article is a] management motivated excuse to squelch complaints about their behavior." It's easy to understand this reader's rationale, given the corporate scandals of recent months. It also could be that this reader's personal experience with workplace problem resolution has led to this very negative belief.
Let's look at the cycle of workplace negativity. An employee has a complaint and takes it to his supervisor. The supervisor may respond in several ways:
In the first two methods, the supervisor is reacting negatively to the complaint and to the employee, feeding the employee's justifiable belief that it does no good to take complaints to management because nothing will be done. Because it is unhealthy and almost impossible to keep feelings bottled up, the disillusioned employee will share his negative feelings about the original problem and about management with co-workers. This employee now has been conditioned to believe that problems never will be handled and management has no regard for the employees—an us-against-them mentality.
The employee also may fear that because of the complaint, he now is branded as a whiner and is on the chopping block. Future issues will not be brought to the supervisor's attention. Instead, they will be heard in the negative rumblings throughout the company.
Another reader commented, "I see myself in this, and many of our management personnel fit the bill also." Management needs to be aware of its role in creating and perpetuating negativity. Besides dealing ineffectively with employee problems, managers can instill negativity by example.
Managers are not immune to negativity. Even in the best of times and particularly in these very difficult times, managers have all sorts of problems above and beyond employee complaints to contend with. And most managers have bosses too. Many are being told to carry out specific tasks that may go against their own wishes and those of the people who report to them.
Managers can succumb to negaholism, just like anyone else, and their negativity can have a profound effect on the workplace culture. If a manager appears down, is unavailable and uncommunicative, and has no time to listen and deal with his or her employees' concerns and put their fears to rest, all sorts of negative reasons for his or her behavior, real or imagined, will be bandied about the office. Even perceived negativity trickles down.
If the majority of the faces around you are frowning, if sighs and worried whispers are drowning out pleasant conversation and positive comments, if productivity is declining and teamwork has disappeared, if you and your co-workers are taking more sick days than ever before, especially mental health days, then your workplace obviously is very negative.
Some negative cultures are not as obvious. Employees can make cutting remarks thinly disguised as jokes—usually at someone's expense. Often the butt of the joke is someone with whom the joker has an issue. There are negative feelings attached to this type of behavior. Sometimes it's easier to joke about the person or problem than to deal with the issue. If there's a high incidence of this type of behavior in your organization, unhealthy negativity is at work.
The worst thing managers can do when confronted with negativity is turn away. Unchecked negativity will multiply quickly, and before you know it, you'll have an epidemic on your hands. Managers can take measures to prevent negativity from becoming a problem and take steps if it's already out of hand.
All of us have personal limitations—how much we can and will endure before we reach a point at which a situation is unacceptable. Sometimes issues in the workplace cannot be solved to our liking. As long as the situation does not involve legally defined harassment or discrimination, an unhappy employee may have to accept the situation or find another job. In any event, continuing to complain is a waste of time.
Although negativity seems to carry far more weight than positivity, a positive person can help squelch the spread of negativity. If you are in the positive camp, the next time your negative co-worker approaches you with gossip, rumors, or complaints, rather than listen and respond with the typical empathic "Oh, my goodness," or "That's awful," ask if the coworker has shared her concerns with human resources or a supervisor. If the answer is no, suggest that she does.
Stop the spread of gossip by saying, "I'm trying to stay away from gossip." Just say no to negativity. It's hard, and you might alienate some of the hardcore negaholics, but what do you have to lose? A lot of secondhand negativity.
It's not easy to overcome negativity. It's difficult to banish negative thoughts, even when we realize that a reaction might be disproportionate to the event that triggered it—and even when we know that too much negativity can be harmful to our health. What it takes is an awareness of our thoughts and a conscious effort to examine them.
Try to be mindful of your thoughts for a day. Write them down and look back over them at the end of the day. How many were positive, how many were negative, and how many of the negatives were you able to turn into positives?
Now look at those thoughts and issues that still are negative. Are they worth worrying about? Can you work on them and turn them into positives? If any are important and you can do something about them, then do it. Make sure you are aware of any ways in which you contribute to the problem, and change your behavior if necessary. Sometimes changing your behavior and your reaction to a situation are all that is needed to make things better.
If it's a work problem that you can't solve on your own, schedule a meeting with your supervisor. Be clear and concise in your explanation, and be prepared to discuss what can be done to solve the problem.
Do any of the negatives involve issues over which you have no control? Then let them go. Constantly complaining about those things over which you have no control is a waste of your time and energy, and even your closet friends will grow tired of listening to you rehash them over and over.
Learn to tune in to your thoughts. You may be amazed at how often you have negative thoughts and how unproductive many of them are. You also may be amazed at how many solvable problems float to the surface when you're tuned in—problems that often are lost in a constant sea of negativity.
If you and those closest to you feel that you are far too negative for your own good and your efforts to reduce your negativity aren't working, consider professional help. Like other addictions, negaholism can be treated.