“Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lie our growth and our happiness.”
This is one of Britney Cole's, Associate Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Innovation Strategy at The Ken Blanchard Companies, favourite quotes, most often attributed to Viktor E. Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning. It holds an answer to managing negativity in the workplace. But first, Cole wants to be clear about negative thoughts and emotions.
It’s okay to feel anger, worry, and sadness. It’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to get upset. We all experience a spectrum of feelings throughout the day. It’s normal. Besides, the more we squash negative emotions, the more they appear. But we can learn how to respond when we want to hold onto those negative emotions.
The first step is to acknowledge that we all feel big feelings, then feel compassion for yourself when you have them and, eventually, for others when they do.
Recognise Negative Tendencies
We all have natural negative tendencies and thought patterns. So don’t beat yourself up—or at least try not to. Recognise these leanings and attempt to catch yourself before you go into your habitual swirl of doom. You know what that looks like. You might be one of those who identify what’s wrong before you recognise what’s going well. Perhaps you like to vent—a lot. Or, if you are like Cole, you get defensive when you get feedback and see it as a criticism. These knee-jerk reactions can go completely unnoticed by us because they are ingrained habits and impulses—learned behaviours we acquired long before we were functioning adults.
The key is to acknowledge a feeling and then identify if your reaction to it will be helpful or unhelpful. We obviously don’t want to act out negatively or do something that’s hurtful. But sometimes our natural tendency does exactly that.
Recently Cole was triggered by one of her colleagues who provided input on a strategy document she wrote. The comments, she felt, were not useful. Instead of dismissing them as a reflection of the person’s own issues, she was triggered and unleashed. Cole felt annoyed and wanted others to feel her irritation and validate her frustration. So Cole immediately texted and called a couple of her closest colleagues and complained. Cole distracted herself from the issue at hand and got wrapped up in a negative cycle of judgment and griping. And while her peers understood and empathised, Cole can only imagine that her rant did not put a positive spin on their day; perhaps it even impacted them later on. It was not an issue that Cole was triggered by, but it was that she let it play out with her teammates and truly created a negative work environment. Not helpful and not fair—to herself, her peers, or that clueless colleague who was trying to give her some honest feedback.
Here is a confession: Cole struggled with gossip and wanted to follow the Golden Rule. If Cole hears someone speaking negatively about someone or something else, she doesn't want to participate or share a juicy story of her own. But she usually does. She sympathises and likely continues enabling the rumour mill. Why? Cole also struggles with being direct, so gossip is an easier way for her to process her feelings. Great job, Brit, on being self-aware. But Cole needed to take this a bit further.
Really, the better course of action is to either not participate or change the subject. Have more empathy and compassion for those who are at the centre of the story. We are all just trying to do the best we can with the information we are presented with at the time.
Goodbye to Toxic Positivity
Toxic positivity is as bad as gossiping. It can be used to gloss over any unpleasant truths in the workplace. Rarely are statements such as “it could be worse” or “don’t stress” or “look on the bright side” helpful to the individual who is having a bad day, for whatever justified or unjustified reason. Toxic positively feels a bit like gaslighting—as if the other person’s feelings don’t matter or aren’t appropriate.
As with gossip, the answer is empathy and compassion. How do you show empathy and compassion? Through listening with the intent to understand, validating those strong emotions, and offering support—even if it’s just an ear.
Flip the Negative Script
Cole and a very close friend work together. They use a technique to manage negativity so they could can help each other share strong feelings but also get some forward momentum. If this person calls wanting to air out grievances, Cole would ask, “Do you want to talk to Work Britney or Friend Britney?” Cole's response is different based on who this person wants to talk to. If it’s Work Britney, she would say something like, “Want to work out a solution together?” If she is looking for a friend, or say, “Dude, that stinks. I’m here for you.”
You can use this technique with your people. Let them know you’re going to wear different hats based on their need. This way, you can either play the role of boss or lend a friendly ear. Cole has asked my leaders in the past to do this. It’s helped her to share her feelings and then make a plan–which often means being more direct with the object of her aggravation.
Find a Release Valve—A Healthy One
People call work a “pressure cooker” for good reason—we all need a release valve. But you need to find one that works for you. Maybe it’s journaling, or exercise, or yoga—whatever helps you process the big feelings. But watch out. Doom scrolling, gossip, toxic positivity, and other nefarious habits that cause more self-harm may seem to be effective release valves, but they clearly only perpetuate the negative cycle on yourself and others.
Set the Tone
Leaders have more influence than they realise. Just consider that a poor relationship with a leader is the top reason people leave a job. You can flip this dynamic on its head by asking people how they are doing, what problems they are facing, what’s their biggest challenge.
Just as important, you can set the tone for these conversations. Instead of focusing on the negative, you can ask people about their big wins in the past week. Cole recently asked her people what their best day at work was in the past six months. Smiles began appearing on every face. Their brains were working hard. Then they shared great stories—and the whole nature of the conversation changed.
You Be the Example
A leader’s job is to manage the energy in the workplace. If there is negativity everywhere, notice it, acknowledge your role in creating or perpetuating that environment, and make a conscious decision to do something different.
It’s an unrealistic attitude to think every day is going to be unicorns and rainbows. Just do your best to be more mindful of negative patterns. Craig Weber calls it “Catch It, Name It, Tame It.” Meanwhile, “Catch people doing things right,” as Ken Blanchard would say. Celebrate the small wins. Celebrate when things go well. And little by little, you’ll change the environment.
It all goes back to the Frankl quote. “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lie our growth and our happiness.”
We have a choice. Do we want to bring people down or lift them up? Do we want to share the latest gossip or simply move on with our day? Negative emotions are shared by all of us, but a negative environment doesn’t have to be. We have the power to create more shared experiences that are positive. It’s about asserting our freedom and remembering that we have a choice in our response—and then choosing the path that leads to our growth and happiness.
About the authors:
Britney Cole is Associate Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Innovation Strategy at The Ken Blanchard Companies. With more than 15 years’ experience in organisation development, performance improvement, and corporate training across all roles, Britney brings a pragmatic and diverse perspective to the way adults desire to learn on the job.