Ditch the Downers

Many people equate work to feelings of frustration, worry, unhappiness, anger or even fear. Work just doesn’t have to be this way! We can talk about these issues “until the cows come home” or we can do something about them. As a leader or individual contributor, you can make a significant impact in your workplace culture and also key relationships by making one small change after another—positively altering attitudes, behaviors and performance. And because every person influences someone every day—whether that influence is positive or negative—helping your employees to ditch the downers they may encounter at work or at home, will certainly help them navigate tough interactions and also aid them in better controlling their own thoughts and actions. 

Do you know any “Debbie Downers” or “Pessimistic Pauls?”

Everyone knows someone who can literally “suck the life out of a room.” You say it’s a beautiful day, she tells you why it’s not. You tell him about your new idea, he tells you why it won’t work. You proudly share a recent work success, and she replies with, “Yeah, but what about…?” I refer to these toxins as “Debbie Downers,” “Cynical Sams,” “Pessimistic Pauls,” “Negative Nancys,” or “Gloomy Glens.” They see every glass of milk as half empty. They play devil’s advocate to every positive scenario. They spew venom to anyone and everyone who will listen.

I often wonder if poisonous attackers realize they’re being incredibly negative, or if it is so commonplace that it is an unconscious action? Regardless, avoid these snakes before they slither their way deep into your psyche and you start mirroring similar behaviors. She complains, you listen. He seizes his prey with a bite, you exhale. She tightens the coil, and you can no longer inhale. The demise is constricting, swift and lethal.

The truth is, who you hang with, you become. Do you surround yourself with an inspiring support network, who lifts you when you’re down, pushes you to grow, and offers candor when needed? Or are you encased with those who consistently pull you down, vomit can nots, why nots and should nots, and/or ooze denial, criticism and blame? Success breeds success. Whining fosters more whining. The choice is yours.  Cutting ties with “Nathan Naysayer” is much easier said than done. Even when bosses need to sever ties, employees often hope they take the necessary action, so the morale of the team doesn’t take a hit. Yet, according to a recent survey featured on Fortune.com, fewer than half of managers said they would fire someone for damaging team morale. Interestingly, 88 percent of employees would. Team members understand the direct impact of these destructive types. They personally experience their high-performing, fun and collaborative team morph into something unrecognizable—a team they don’t want to be a part of any longer. Sadly, it’s often too late when management finally realizes the extent of the damage.

Because employees often struggle with how to handle “the Nathans”—whether at work or at home, consider recommending or trying several of these ideas:

  • Change your routine. Instead of sitting through lunch with someone who whines and complains about her troubles, critiques mutual friends, and sits and pouts, choose to do something different with that time. Go for a walk, eat with someone else, or spend time reading. The exchange may influence a behavior change from her, too, or at the very least, you will more easily be able to enjoy lunchtime without facing unwanted negativity.
  • Keep interactions short. If you have to engage with a toxic individual, keep the interactions short and focused on the desired outcome. Instead of empathizing as she rambles on about her mountainous number of tasks or frustrating spouse, listen for a few minutes, and then explain that you really need to cut this conversation short due to another commitment—the commitment you made to yourself to limit interactions with this person.
  • Control self-talk. Negative emotions tend to rise when we encounter pessimistic influences. If your emotions begin to elevate after talking with a toxic personality, be conscious of and control the self-talk in your mind. For example, a normally calm, mild-mannered person may resort to yelling outwardly or screaming inwardly because she simply can’t take hearing the negativity anymore. It may be tempting to say to yourself, “He makes me so angry!” But blaming others for your feelings gives them more power. When you take control of your reactions, you own your feelings. It’s been said that, “Human beings are reaction machines.” Instead of reacting in the moment, slow down your negative thoughts and stay true to your values, even though the circumstances are trying.
  • Maintain perspective. There are reasons people behave the way they do. Sometimes the reasons are clear, while other times they are murky. Perhaps the bothersome naysayer you want to avoid is facing self-esteem issues, ongoing job performance errors, money problems, health concerns, or something completely different. We each behave in our own way when we have concerns that are weighing heavily on us. Understanding that there may be a deeper cause for the pessimistic persona wouldn’t cause me to excuse it, but I could more easily maintain a greater sense of perspective with it.
  • Ask pertinent questions. When someone has you cornered and is spewing cynical statements, try asking him/her, “How can I help you?” or “What are you going to do?” This strategy helps shift the topic from the negative problem to a possible solution.
  • Optimistically oppose. If you’re stuck in a situation where everything that is flowing out of “Gloomy Glen” is anti-positive, tentatively articulate kind, opposing statements. For example, if he says his food sucks, combat that with, “My food is pretty good. Perhaps, you could try some of mine, if you’d like?” Or if he says Paul (fellow employee) is such a pain to work with, optimistically oppose by saying, “I used to think of him the same way. Then I decided to focus on the positive difference he has made to our store, and that helps me view him differently.” If this tactic doesn’t influence a more positive tone right away, hopefully you have given this individual a little more to think about. At the very least, “Gloomy Glens” tend to move on to others when what they are getting from you isn’t satisfying their mantra.

Almost all of us have dealt—or are still dealing—with an annoyingly negative employee or an unbearable pessimistic friend. When facing someone who views the world through a negative lens, realize you can’t change him/her—as the only person you can change is yourself. Instead, understand that negativity comes in many forms, and we need to protect ourselves against it. Why? Because negative thoughts stick to us like Velcro and positive thoughts slide off us like Teflon. And chances are, you are taking that venomous snake home with you when you leave work. Instead, avoid being the innocent prey by taking control of who you spend your time and energy with. This way, you’ll be hanging with those you admire, enjoy interacting with, and often seek to emulate or learn from.

Dysfunctional and horrible work and home environments do exist. Manure happens! Instead of complaining or choosing to do nothing, “take the bull by the horns” and steer the positive change you want to see. 

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