What Do You Do When Surrounded by Negativity?

By: Sam

Open your favorite news app, scroll through your go-to social media page, or, if you are feeling daring, turn on the live news. With today’s nearly limitless access to information, I have found myself overwhelmed by information. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I started to recognize a prevalent theme in all these sources: negativity. I found that almost all the headlines were about terrible things going on in the world. This realization left me wondering…what happened to the sneezing panda videos, trying to figure out whether a dress was gold or blue, and all the other feel-good stories?

Fortunately, we hold the power over what we choose to intake in terms of news and social media as well as maintain the ability to turn it off. But what happens when we are around people who are negative? There is no “off” button, no way to “silence notifications” from the person who works next to you or to unsubscribe from a teammate’s constant pessimism. No doubt, working with, for, or around people who are constantly negative can be a drain. In my own experience, I have been a part of teams and organizations that had every type of negativity: serial complainers, eternal pessimists, or just downright angry individuals. Often, despite my best defenses, I caught myself being affected by these cynics, letting their negativity rub off on me, and even carrying over into my attitude when I got home at the end of day.

What can we do when we find ourselves surrounded by people filled with negativity? How can we help those around us increase their positivity, change their outlook, or perhaps encourage them to keep their negative opinions to themselves? As leaders, we have a responsibility to address these issues on our team. So, let’s explore four ways that we can employ techniques to counter negativity in our workplace. Spoiler Alert…there are no sneezing pandas involved!

Four Ways Intentional Leaders Combat Negativity

Set the example. In the military, we often coach our young leaders to never complain in front of their soldiers. You must set the example when it comes to positivity. I have long believed that maintaining a positive mental attitude can do wonders for your health, both mentally and physically (and researchers agree). Despite how difficult your personal life may be that day, bring a positive mental attitude to the workplace and let it permeate to those around you. A positive attitude is a decision – a simple one, yes, but certainly not easy. Help your team keep their perspective and remind them of all the good things going on. Lead by example and set a tone of positivity in your workplace. Tip: An easy way to bring positivity to the workplace is to introduce a “celebration period” to a weekly meeting. During this time, you can ask each team member to share something positive from their lives. It could be something as simple as “My daughter won her volleyball game last night” to “I just finished paying off my car loan.” Encourage your entire team to give a raucous round of applause after each person shares…it may sound cheesy (it is), but it will not fail to lift the mood of the entire office!

Appeal to the individual. Not all complaints are invalid. There may be times that an individual’s complaints are about something deeply important to them. While it may be seemingly benign to you, it could very well be the most important thing going on in that individual’s life. It can be the pebble in their shoe you’re not seeing. Take the time to hear the person out. There may be more to that story than what you know, and by taking the time to hear the person’s perspective, you can offer recommendations that they may not have considered in their current emotional state. Tip: Ask the individual to step outside, to go for a walk, or to grab a cup of coffee. These types of conversations are better held in a private environment. It also prevents them from feeling attacked.

Sometimes blowing off steam is okay. I used to joke that if you gave a group of employees six days off, they would complain about not having the seventh day off. It is in most people’s nature to complain about things throughout the course of every day. Usually, they can find a sympathetic ear or someone else in the group equally ready to gripe along with them, and oftentimes a little complaining can help make light of some temporary annoyance. I personally don’t mind this in my organization, but it’s a fine line. Sometimes, letting a teammate blow off a little steam, even if it’s in a group setting, is the best thing for that situation. And often, that could be the end of it. It is up to you to make sure you don’t step in too early to nip dissent in the bud; this could not only stifle productive dissent, but even make the situation worse. Tip: You must keep a careful watch on when the line is crossed and ensure that a little playful banter doesn’t spiral into a culture issue for the organization. This is easier said than done but use your judgement and read the situation carefully to help ensure you aren’t just pushing the conversations to a venue out of your earshot.

 Identify the contagious rabbits. Known for their multiplicative prowess, virus-carrying rabbits can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. When you can identify the individuals in your organization who have the power to influence others by “spreading their diseases,” make it a special point to counter their cynicism quickly. Do they have a major issue with something going on? Get them to offer their own recommendation. Put them in charge of a special task force aimed at fixing the problem. Challenge them to make it better, like a character in West Wing, one of the greatest TV shows of all time stated, “It’s easier to throw rocks at a house than to build one. Fix the place from the inside. That’s what grownups do.” Tip: This technique takes time. It is much easier to moan and gripe about something than to fix it. If you choose to use this method, you must hold the individual accountable. If they are unable to find a better solution, it can become a valuable teaching moment. You won’t even have to say anything to the rest of your organization; they will see the change in the complainer’s attitude and know what you have accomplished.

People are going to be negative. It is unavoidable. How you choose to deal with that in your organization is up to you. Employing some of these tools and adjusting them to your situation can help reduce the impact of the negativity and, hopefully, keep your team focused on their objectives. We can’t “turn off” the negative folks in our work environment like we can the nightly news. Instead, we owe it to ourselves and our coworkers to take action to reduce, prevent, or eliminate negativity in our workplaces by “turning on” the productive positivity through engaged leadership.

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