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"Well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine today?"

“Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine today?”

Remember Debbie Downer, the Saturday Night Live character who would offer awkward, crushingly pessimistic comments during festive gatherings, followed by the wah-waaaaah sound effect? She exists–in male or female form–and may even work in your organization. But unlike the fictional Debbie Downer, real life negaholics are not amusing, and can actually damage morale, weaken workplace relationships and leadership, reduce productivity, and even increase turnover.

Let’s be fair: anyone can occasionally feel or act like a negaholic, even me. On those (exceedingly rare) days when I have been overcome by funk, I did not realize how I was spreading negative energy until I either felt more positive, or until someone gave me feedback. Given the dark cloud that pessimism/ negaholism can hang over the workplace, it is definitely worthwhile to resist it, no matter if it stems from a colleague, subordinate, superior—or from ourselves.

For most people, confronting their own negaholism and turning to a more positive course is easier than disarming another person’s negativity. However, if you need some ideas, I recommend reading one of our earlier posts, “Maximizing positive emotions,” or meeting with one of CWFL’s Professional Staff for a free consultation.

Although tempting to comment on his facial expression, it may be best to leave that to his boss

Although tempted to comment on his facial expression, I will leave that to his boss.

So how do I contend with the pessimists, critics, and curmudgeons in my workplace, you ask? That depends on your relationship with them, your place in the hierarchy, your communication style, and your confidence. For instance, the more stable relationship you have with a colleague, the better chance you have for a productive conversation about the impact of that person’s behavior. However, if the negaholic in question is highly defensive, prone to filing complaints against co-workers, or has the ability or authority to make you unemployed, then directness may be unwise. Here’s my formula for confronting workplace negaholism…

If you have a stable relationship with the person, or feel sufficiently confident that you can express yourself without risk of grievance or punishment, then try direct conversation. Start with compassion. Ask if something is wrong, or make an observation that the colleague does not seem like his/her typical self, noting specific details of their words, tone, body language, or behavior.

N:      This place really sucks sometimes.

You:   What’s going on? I expect this kind of discontent from Harry, but not from you. It must be something serious to have you using words like that.

If you do not have a solid rapport with the person, have concerns about how s/he will react, or perceive the person as having limited ability to accept feedback, then oppose the negativity indirectly. That is, you ignore the complaints, focus on maintaining your own positive attitude, and encourage others in your work environment to do the same. Thus, even if you don’t confront the pessimism head-on, you and your colleagues can still overpower it with numbers and strength. If the pessimist tries to corrupt you, try using techniques like reframing and perspective to resist the negativity.

N:      Don’t we have the worst boss in the history of the world?

You:   I don’t agree with everything she does, but I think she’s basically a decent person and tries to do right by us. As far as worst boss of all time, my director five years ago wins that prize. Compared to him, ours is an angel.

If you are a manager, and the negaholic is your subordinate, then you can address the negativity as a deficit in performance. It surprises many to learn that performance is marked not only by task or skill, but also by reliability and demeanor. Even high profile, supremely talented, revenue generating professionals like Tom Cruise, Terrell Owens, Isaiah Washington, and Charlie Sheen have lost jobs when their demeanor became intolerable to their employers. When you attempt to address negative attitudes and behaviors as failures to meet expected performance standards, be prepared for comments like, “I’m here to work, not make friends” or “I missed the part of my job description where it says smiling is required.” Thanks to Workday, you now have the ability to set specific standards for demeanor and workplace relationships to be evaluated during annual performance appraisals (if those standards aren’t already in place). In other words, smiling (i.e. professional, civil interactions with colleagues) may indeed be required. In fairness to the subordinate, if s/he will be held to those standards, then s/he needs to receive consistent and timely feedback about substandard demeanor, and direction on how to improve.

You:   I need to talk to you about how your attitude is limiting your success at work.

N:      I don’t see how that’s relevant. I produce more and higher quality work than anyone else in the office.

You:   That’s true, and I value you for that. But your demeanor in the office matters, too. When you fire off negative, unconstructive comments at will, that affects your colleagues’ morale and my ability to lead. With a better attitude, you would be even more valuable, and this organization would be a better place. Let’s talk more specifically about how you can improve.

No matter your relationship to the Debbie Downer in your office, you don’t have to allow her (or him) to take you down. Given the serious implications for morale, performance, and even stability of the organization that come with pervasive negativity, the optimists have to be more stubborn and enduring.

IMG_2195by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu

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