Neutralizing Negativity in the Workplace

Negativity is one of the most common, and deeply ingrained, obstacles to a healthy work environment. When working with front-line employees, supervisors and mid-level managers in long-term care facilities, a frequent question I hear is, “What can I do to create more positive interactions in my workplace?  People are so negative here!”

Negativity: What is it, really?

Believe it or not, the term “negativity” does not mean the same thing to everyone or display itself consistently in all work settings.  Each facility, or even departments within a facility, can be “negative” in different ways. So the first step is to behaviorally define: “What does ‘negativity’ look like in your work setting?”

In getting feedback from supervisors and employees, we came up with a long list of behaviors and characteristics. Here is our current list.

Examples of Negative Behaviors in the Workplace

Grumbling & Complaining                     Blaming others                                Yelling

Sarcasm & Cutting Remarks                 Condescension                                 Criticism

Gossiping                                                   Embarrassment                              Resistance

Glaring                                                       Distrust                                             Irritability

Sabotage                                                    Arguing                                             Pessimism

Physical Aggression                                 Undercutting & Undermining        Bullying

Walking away without answering          Cynicism                                             Mocking

Defensiveness                                            Emotional Reactivity                      Conflict

Passive Aggressiveness                            Humiliation                                      Cussing

Where Negativity Comes From

 Negative reactions are created by a variety of factors, and often a combination of issues.  One of the most frequently ignored set of factors are physiological ones.  While it becomes obvious once mentioned, we need to remember that we are more likely to react with negative behavior when we are tired, hungry or thirsty, if there are hormonal changes occurring, or when we generally don’t feel well, have a headache, or in pain.

Probably the most common source of negative reactions is when expectations aren’t met.  We get angry (at different intensity levels) when what we think should happen doesn’t, or when something happens that we think shouldn’t.

So, if a team member is (or a group of employees are) consistently displaying negative reactions in the workplace, it is quite likely that they are experiencing a mismatch between their expectations and what they are experiencing in day-to-day work life.  Hundreds of books have been written on the topic of controlling our emotional reactions by examining our thought patterns and belief systems which can be of help.*

How to Begin to Neutralize Negativity

So what can be done?  Do you just have to accept the level of negativity expressed in your workplace?

No, you don’t have to resort to “walking on eggshells” waiting for someone to explode, or try to avoid colleagues who seem angry much of the time.  Nor do you have to endure the seemingly endless complaining, grumbling and cynical comments made by others.

We do not have the power to change others’ attitudes, and often we have minimal ability to shape their behaviors.  But each of us do have the capability to impact those we work with on a daily basis.  Here are three practical steps to begin with:

  1. Don’t engage in the negative. When others are complaining, keep quiet.  If a group is gossiping about another team member, just walk away.  When someone acts in a hostile way toward you, respond appropriately and calmly.  Don’t add to the negative energy others are displaying.
  2. Contribute to the positive. A positive comment is like throwing water on a fire trying to get started.  Smile.  Make a humorous (non-cutting) comment.  Tell someone thanks for a job done well.  Comment on how nice the weather is or being thankful for air conditioning.  A little positivity and gratefulness can douse a developing “negativity” wildfire.
  3. Explore your and others’ expectations and compare them with reality. Examine whether people’s expectations are reality-based.  (Tip: It is best to start with yourself rather than others.) Compare your situation with other situations worse than yours, and see how that impacts your perspective.  Consider doing some in-service training with staff on what are realistic and unrealistic expectations for their jobs and workplace.

Unfortunately, negative attitudes and behaviors seem to reign in many workplaces.  But don’t let others dominate and take control of your workplace environment.  Each person can begin to take steps to help create a more positive workplace, and when employees work together to do so, a far healthier workplace culture can develop.

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While it is more “fun” to deal with positive skills in the workplace, we also have to deal with reality — and the reality is there are a lot of challenges to building a healthy work environment.  My new book, The Vibrant Workplace, (which is subtitled Overcoming the Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation)  focuses on understanding and overcoming the top 10 challenges to creative a positive workplace.

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