Negativity: good or bad?

I'd never really thought about workplace negativity as a cultural attribute until last week when I was in a workshop and the participants said the number one thing they would like to tackle in order to raise performance and morale was negativity.

That statement coincided with some info that dropped into my mailbox about embracing anxiety in the face of uncertainty. The piece cited some studies that showed how negative thinking can be productive. It quoted from a book written by Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley and author of "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking," who advises, "Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy, but it drives your attention away from feelings of anxiety to what you can do to address the disaster that might happen." I've downloaded a sample chapter to my Kindle. It will be handy for next time I start thinking 'this will never work.'

Viewing negativity as a plus seems to run counter to intuitive thinking that positivity is 'good' and negativity is 'bad'. Take a look at all the Google images that come up when you search for 'negativity in the workplace'. I couldn't find one that said 'celebrate negativity'. Curt Coffman, coauthor of Gallup's book First, Break All the Rules, talks of 'actively disengaged employees' as "cave dwellers," drawing the acronym from the fact that they're "Consistently Against Virtually Everything." "Negativity is like a blood clot, and actively disengaged employees sometimes clot together in groups that support and reinforce their [negative] beliefs," Coffman said in a Gallup interview.

And there are columns of advice on stamping out negativity in the workplace through various means. One that looks sensible if you are in the 'negativity = bad' camp is this free downloadable booklet A Manager's Guide to Overcoming Negativity in the Workplace

But now I'm thinking maybe negativity could be a useful attribute if we go along with Norem's view and I recalled reading something about the value in listening to the 'devil's advocate' – generally the person who dissents from the proposed view – you can read an interesting article on this topic here.

And further, if we subscribed to the values of diversity, inclusion, valuing all contributions, etc maybe we shouldn't be busy trying to stamp out negativity in our colleagues – that's not a very inclusive approach or is it?

Something that we discussed in the workshop were small mood lifters that could work to boost everyone's spirits and avoid the downward spiral into groupthink negativity. Some that we came up with were:

1. Walking meetings, preferably outside
2. Tidy the office – decluttered environments feel better than cluttered ones. Try holding 'clean up' with teams being given small prizes for the oldest item found, the most number of shoes under a desk, the oddest item, the most number of bin/trash bags filled in time, etc.
3. Having a photo wall or community wall (kept updated) with a few fun non-work facts/skills about each person. Doing a skills swap session – so someone who can ice cakes could do a lunchtime or after work hour on how to ice a cake.
4. Making a huge change curve and having a tub of emoticoms that people stick on their position on the curve that day. (I've seen that work very well).
5. Setting up a big jigsaw in the common kitchen area with people putting in pieces as they walked in and out (stopping to chat as they did so).

What's your view on workplace negativity? And what are your office mood lifters? Let me know.

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