By Helen Rothberg
February 6, 2018

We often get caught up in what is negative without giving due course to the new responsibilities that we mastered, the friends we have helped, the boss who said thanks or the choice to take the stairs. There are rays of light in the day to day — we just need to put some of the energy we use to critique ourselves into recognizing them.

In our quest for getting it right we often focus on what didn’t work instead of what did. But over focusing on what isn’t right can be like sticking a pin in a well-inflated balloon. And then negativity can set it.

I like to think of negativity as a virus and organizations are petri dishes, where the smallest infection can multiply exponentially. Your best defense is to not let negativity get you. But even taking preventative action can’t always prevent an infection. If infected with an onslaught of whining, blaming, distraction and hopelessness, you need to treat quickly so it doesn’t boil over into other parts of your life — and tank your career.

Seriously: Avoid Drama

Over the years I have worked with many different types of teams. The most frantic are design teams in global industries surprised by a new technology or a shift in market preferences. These people live with tight deadlines, tight budgets, and the fear that they will never catch up. They waste a lot of time complaining about the impossible, the improbable, and who’s to blame. It’s all very dramatic.

It may sound simple, but avoiding drama is critical for staying positive at work. It doesn’t matter who or what caused the situation. All that matters is getting out of it. And it takes just a couple of people to see a competitive threat as an opportunity to innovate and help shift the team from “it can’t be done” to “what can we do next!” Instead of whining, spearhead a brainstorming session, which can invigorate other members to see that the light in the tunnel might not be an on-coming train. It might just be the light.

Seek the Right Sources

I knew a CEO who hosted town meetings with all employees, and the goal was to talk about the company’s need to shed underperforming products. Sounds scary, right? But the reason makes sense. The goal was to short-circuit the rumor mill and provide full information about lay-offs and human resource support.

Negativity thrives on rumors, so the best defense is to seek information from the right sources. Staying calm, asking thoughtful questions and seeing the situation for what it is (not what you might want it to be, or what others are painting it to be) maintains perspective and perhaps the discovery of opportunity in what’s next.

Detect Negativity Early

I worked with a CEO of a successful non-profit who had an uncanny ability to sense negativity brewing. Her advice: “Never ignore it. If you do, it festers, and can bring down a lot of people fast.”

At the first sign of something being off she asks her people “What’s going on? And what do we need to do?” and then takes action. In extreme cases, when there’s a person at the core of it that she can’t turn around she removes them. “Sometimes one influential person can sour a whole place,” she says.

If you are being asked about why you feel negative, tell the truth. You can’t speak for others but you can for yourself. Be clear about how you are feeling and what you need. If there’s a person in your group who is negative by nature, stay away from them. Remember: drama free is key.

An Easy Cure for the Negative Blues: Say Thank You

Remember that there are people that support you too. Recognize them for getting things done well, going the extra mile and being reliable. It will make them feel seen, appreciated, and keep them smiling.

Helen Rothberg is a professor in the school of management at Marist College Her book The Perfect Mix: Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned as a Bartender is out now.

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