Reversing Negativity at Work

No matter how much you love your job, there are going to be days when nothing goes right.  An important client suddenly demanded the impossible.  You find out that your boss’s totally clear instructions about last week’s work meant something different to her than to you.  You have three days of power outages and then a coworker gets the flu, and now you’re a week behind and catching up to deadlines seems impossible.  What do you do?

If you’re like me, or like most people I’ve worked with, you feel bitter about it for a while.  Here you are, doing your best, and now you’re deep in a hole, and it’s not your fault.  Maybe you and your coworkers commiserate and vent some steam: “What a jerk Bob is being,” or “They need to relax this deadline, because it’s absurd to pretend nothing has changed.”

By itself, this behavior is human nature.  When it becomes habit, it becomes toxic.  How do you break yourself out of that habit?

1. Think of an upcoming project that excites you  
A lot of people dwell on the exciting things they used to do, and see today’s routine as a step down.  The fact that you’re in a lull now doesn’t mean it will last forever.  Maybe the next exciting thing is a conference you’ll attend this year, or a paper you’re writing, or a new technology you get to play with.  Even if you can’t work on it today, looking forward to it helps restore your energy.

2. Compliment your coworkers
One of the dangers of negativity is that it spills into our attitudes about other people.  When we’re locked into negative thoughts, it’s easy to see the problems other people make for us, but almost nobody is a total waste of space, whatever we may think in our dark times.  Even if it’s something as small as, “Thanks for answering my email so quickly,” or “I appreciated that you asked that question in today’s meeting; I’d been wondering about it, too,” you’ll find that calling attention to the positives of someone’s performance will help you deal more comfortably with them.

3. Take a break
If you find yourself falling in a cycle of anger or negativity, stand up and walk away from your desk for a bit.  Get some coffee.  If you can, leave the building entirely and walk a loop of the building.  Count the flowers by the front door, or the number of people you pass on your way to the water cooler.  The most important part of this is to give your brain something else to focus on, to break up the cycle.  The sooner you do this, the better you’ll feel.

4. Cultivate small successes
Bitterness is fed on cycles of futility, where we feel as if nothing we do is having an impact.  To combat that, look for something you know you can complete and feel good about.  Every day, we put off dozens of small, important tasks because they aren’t urgent yet.  Complete a mandatory training course ahead of schedule.  Do an early performance review for a good employee.  Put together a how-to document you’ve been meaning to write for ages.  Getting a sense of closure on something, no matter how small, will refresh you.

5. Stop saying it aloud
When you complain about something unfair to your coworker, your coworker will agree with you.  Then your coworker will stew on it, and their negativity will go up.  Their negativity will make them complain about something to you, and you will agree with them.  And the cycle will repeat.

The simplest way to break the cycle is don’t feed the cycle.  If you can, tell your coworkers that’s what you’re doing: “I’m trying to stay more positive about things, so I’m going to try to avoid complaining for a while.”  Don’t put the burden on them, just say clearly what you’re doing.  You might find attitudes improving all around you as a result.


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