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Understanding and dealing with negativity in the workplace

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Paul White
Paul White

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 – at least 25. Here is our current list. (We are always looking for more specific behaviors, feel free to email ones we left out to admin@appreciationatwork.com.)

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
  • Bullying 
  • Undercutting & Undermining 
  • Physical Aggression
  • Walking away without answering 
  • Cynicism 
  • Mocking
  • Defensiveness 
  • Conflict 
  • Emotional Reactivity
  • Cussing 
  • Humiliation 
  • Passive Aggressiveness

Negativity: Symptom or cause?

A valid question to ask is:  Are negative behaviors the symptom of some other problems or do negative behaviors create problems and negative reactions from others?

Like any good psychologist might say, “It depends.” In actuality, the real answer is “both.”  

Negative behaviors do indicate problems exist (either with the individual staff member, with issues within the facility itself, or some external factors creating excessive stress) and they become the stimulus for additional negative behaviors from others. Only in rare occasions (usually due to a medical condition) do people act in an angry way unless there is something they are reacting to, whether it is an issue they have personally or an event that occurred. Frequently, when one person (staff, resident or family member) communicates a negative reaction to someone else, their action triggers another type of negative reaction from the recipient. The pattern can continue and intensify; when this occurs primarily with words, the result is an argument.

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, from irritation to being mad to becoming enraged) when what we think should happen doesn't (for example, the nurse aide does not follow treatment instructions for a patient), or when something happens that we think shouldn't (a colleague who has less experience than you do is promoted to a supervisory position).

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.*

An additional factor for long-term care facilities is that many of the residents served display negative reactions to the staff who are serving them – adding to the overall negative milieu by complaining, yelling, and being critical of (seemingly) almost every area of their daily life.  This obviously makes for a more difficult work environment than one which has a more cheerful, appreciative clientele.

How to start to neutralize negativity

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 (except possibly through corrective disciplinary actions.) But each of us do have the capability to impact those we work with on a daily basis. Here are three beginning practical steps to take:

 

  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 with 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.

*Two helpful books in understanding and dealing with anger are:  When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within by McKay, Rogers & McKay, and Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way by Gary Chapman.

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker and trainer. His most recent book, The Vibrant Workplace: Overcoming the Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation, further applies the principles from the best-selling 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, co-authored with Gary Chapman. Learn more at www.appreciationatwork.com.

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