Overcoming negativity

Communication  Leadership
04 July, 2016

Don’t let negativity undermine you and your team

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things may not work out the way you want them to. It happens. And sometimes, it isn’t really anyone’s fault. But when things go wrong, you have a choice – you can either find a positive approach to handle the situation or you can stay caught in a rut.

We have all been there – when we felt so let down. Feeling like the victim is easier in a sense and probably even cathartic. You have someone or something to pass the blame and the anger and the disappointment on to.

Negativity is easier, but it can be very self-defeating, not to mention terribly sapping. And nobody wins. The worrying part is that while this may start out as just you feeling upset, negativity is very contagious and destructive.

Unwittingly, it can not only affect you but undermine and limit your team’s performance.

So, my message this week is on negativity – why you need to be more aware of the impact of the negativity you pass on, and how to handle any negative behaviour in your team.

Negativity shows up in different ways. It could be in rumours that get passed around in the corridors, relationships that get territorial, constant pressure breeding in a team, discontentment with decisions being made, a breakdown of trust, disagreements that go nowhere. Something even seemingly small can end up snowballing into a much larger concern.

You’d be surprised to know just how much energy gets invested in being negative. Marshall Goldsmith, in his Harvard Business Review article, Reducing Negativity in the Workplace, cites a survey by badbossology.com and Development Dimensions International, which says that a majority of employees spend upwards of 10 hours in a month complaining or listening to others complain – and that’s just about their bosses and senior management. That’s a lot of time!

That said, all negativity is certainly not bad. If anything, we very much need to have a healthy dose of questioning the status quo. How else will we start looking for alternatives and make change possible? We must create a culture where we can agree to disagree openly. That’s the kind of healthy conflict that encourages innovation and pushing boundaries; it doesn’t let us get complacent. It is built on mutual respect and being solution oriented. That’s what makes it different.

But if you do find yourself faced with the kind of negativity that can be damaging, whether to you as an individual or to your team or even our company, here are some suggestions on how to approach it:

1. Be aware of the negativity; call it out

Learn how to identify negativity. And if you can see the signs showing, don’t brush them aside.  Have a conversation with the person. Explain your concerns and why you perceive it as negative. Talk about the impact it is having. Starting a conversation is the first step towards resolving the issue. And when you do it, create a space where the person will feel comfortable and not targeted. So, for example, don’t single someone out in a meeting or have this conversation on an open floor.

2. Listen, even if you can’t empathise

True, some people are just pessimistic by nature. But there are others who aren’t so. There could be valid reasons for their negativity. To tell the difference, you must be willing to distinguish between the person and their behaviour. Only then will you be able to try and understand their concerns. Most times, people think that if they indulge in such conversations, they will be encouraging more negativity. But that isn’t so. To be fair, you must give the person a chance to explain themselves.

3. Get to the root of the issue

Probe. Find out what’s causing all the negativity. Once the person is done venting (and that part is only natural), ask for more details. Strip away the disgruntlement and focus on the core of the issue. So, for example, if someone says “There is no way we will be able to make these targets”, ask why. Where are the roadblocks? Is it about resources or timelines? From there, move to what can be done differently to make it possible.

4. Be constructive

Don’t let yourself get dragged into the negativity. Stay calm and in control. You need to be constructive to make any meaningful change happen. For starters, choose to have the conversation only once you are ready to. And if you find it spiralling out of control, stop. Continue it later. As Peter Bregman points out in his Harvard Business Review article, How to Respond to Negativity, confronting someone’s negativity with your own negativity doesn’t work because it’s additive. Negativity only breeds negativity.

5. Balance the positive

Don’t go overboard on the positive, any more than you would on the negative. The last thing that someone who is feeling so negative wants, is to be pushed into positivity. That just isn’t real. Don’t force it. Bergman talks about how countering negativity with positivity doesn’t work because it is argumentative, especially when things are emotionally charged. If you push too hard on this, chances are that you will come across as someone who is unable to understand their reality. Instead, as he suggests, find out what the person is positive about and reinforce it. Building on their positive feelings – whatever they may be and however little they may be – is a far better alternative because at least it comes from a space which is more authentic.

6. Open up more communication

Arguably the best way to counter negativity from spreading, is to put much more conversation out there. Share more of the real facts, open up what could be difficult conversations, be much more authentic and upfront. Tap into not just the structured communication platforms, but also importantly, the informal ones. That’s where most speculation take place. Let people know that they can come to you. When they do, hear them out fairly. And get back with the responses they are searching for. That’s what will build more credibility.

7. Know when to make a break

Hear the person out and try to find a mutually agreeable solution. But if you find it isn’t working, that things continue to become even more negative, despite your efforts, then be clear about the consequences. Know when to make a break. Constant negativity can be very draining. It can also take a significant toll on your entire team. Don’t allow yourself to end up spending disproportionate efforts on trying to curb it.

Goldsmith offers a simple and effective strategy to reduce “whining time” as he calls it. He suggests encouraging your direct reports, colleagues, and peers to ask these four questions before making a public comment:

  • Will this comment help our company?
  • Will this comment help our customers?
  • Will this comment help the person that I am talking to?
  • Will this comment help the person that I am talking about?

If the answers are “no”, then just don’t say it.

So, think about how you come across, especially when things get tough or when you disagree on something. Do you contribute to the negativity too, knowingly or otherwise? Introspect a bit, about the signals you’re sending out, your choice of words, or how open you are in conversations. How you act and react send across very strong signals to your team and people around you. If you start indulging in frequent negativity, it only gives people more of a reason to jump on board. As noted psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross so aptly put it, “negativity can only feed on negativity”.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


  • shyam sundar says:

    Wonderful Article.. Just a point which we would like to discuss.. The negativity could also be due to the fact that the product that we were confident of, have not clicked with customers and this in turn leads to frustration as the R & D of the product has been done based on customer feedback and we find that the customer does not find it to be a “WOW” product. In these situations how do we ensure that we make it a WOW so that it moves positively? Since the product is already made, we cannot modify it so how do we work around to ensure that the negativity and no hope situation changes to positivity? We see this typically in our software business. Need your thoughts on it. Regds, Shyam


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