By Andrew Forrester
Navigating different personalities and company cultures can be hard. Here are some ideas for managing those difficulties and avoiding the label of “downer” at work.
“Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.”
Paul J. Meyer, motivational speaker
In my first job out of college, I worked for a company that prided itself on being relentlessly optimistic. At first, it was impressive. How were these people so enthusiastic and encouraging all the time? Didn’t they ever get annoyed? Where were all the skeptics and the critics?
The job was a grueling one, and my skill set was woefully unmatched to the demands of my position—which is a nice way of saying that I hated it and spent most days desperately wanting to complain to someone. Alas, there was no one, because everyone was just so dang bright and cheerful. I would later learn that there is a descriptor for this kind of untenable atmosphere: toxic positivity. In her book on the subject, Whitney Goodman describes toxic positivity as a kind of refusal to acknowledge the existence of negative feelings for the sake of “being happy.”
Maybe you work in a “happy” company like mine, or on a team where this is the culture. Maybe your sense of discernment and knack for spotting potential pitfalls are treated as character flaws rather than the shrewdness and good judgment you feel them to be. Or, maybe the issue is on your end, and you’ve been struggling with how to communicate your disagreements without being perceived as hyper-negative. Here are some ideas for managing these difficulties and avoiding the unfair label of “downer” at work.
Praise the Positive
Imagine someone who walks around the office in a storm of unpleasantness. They’re always scowling, shaking their head, muttering to themselves in some sort of inhuman orc language. If they speak up in a meeting, you might feel like groaning; you can probably guess the content of their statement. “Actually . . .” “I don’t think that will work.” “Here’s your problem . . .”
We’ve all worked with some version of this person (minus, perhaps, the inhuman orc language part). Genuinely negative people create the following problem for themselves: whatever valid critiques or complaints they may have get lost in the swarm of petty annoyances and unnecessary grumblings that constantly accompanies them.
You are not this person. Probably. But here’s how you can be sure. Take simple steps to celebrate positive things when you see them. Verbally acknowledge someone’s good thinking, email your congratulations for a colleague’s promotion and write the occasional thank you note. You’re probably already doing some of these things. Now you can do them with purpose, knowing that each time you take the effort, you’re earning the goodwill to allow future disagreements or suggestions to be received well and taken seriously.
If You Can Leave It, Leave It
Another simple step in the right direction: if you can leave it, leave it. If something just really irks you, but that’s the extent of its negative impact, think long and hard about whether or not it’s worth mentioning. Your colleague’s annoying snacking habits, a minorly inconvenient company policy or a meeting that dragged on just a bit too long are not always the dire crises they seem to be in a moment. Do yourself (and your coworkers) a favor by remembering to take a beat, take a breath and see if the feeling passes.
If it doesn’t, that’s worth noting. If it comes up again and again, that’s meaningful. And of course, if the thing that irks you has its roots in something really significant, like financial carelessness or discriminatory practices or any number of genuine HR issues, then yes, of course, act. And consider the following steps while you’re at it.
Write It First
It’s a tried-and-true method, used in everything from therapy to declarations of love: before saying the thing you want to say, write it down in a message that you may or may not send. This practice comes in handiest when you receive a frustrating or worrying email and find yourself itching to respond. Do respond, but maybe don’t take it all the way to actually replying. Type out your thoughts, save the email as a draft and return to it in 12-24 hours. If you still believe in your words (and if you’re willing to stand by the tenor of your tone), send it. If your language needs softening or massaging, take those steps. And if the thing that needed to be done was simply for the words to be written out, well, you’ve done that now, and hopefully, you’ll have an easier time relinquishing whatever’s vexing you.
This method also works before going to speak to someone in person or over the phone. It’s a way of organizing your thoughts into their most salient points. It allows you to clearly articulate where your concerns or complaints are founded and why you think they’re worth expressing. Perhaps most helpful is the self-editing it leads to, enabling you to see which lines of thinking can be cut or restructured. For a phone call, you now have a script that sticks to the most significant points without allowing space for unnecessary grievances. For those face-to-face chats, you’ve taken your brain through a practice round of self-expression and will now be more likely to speak lucidly and succinctly. It’s a win-win.
The Power of “I Statements”
In marriage counseling and creative writing classes, participants are often encouraged to use “I statements.” “I wonder if you did it this way . . .” “I feel like there’s room for improvement here . . .” “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”
This is because “you statements,” as negotiation expert Dr. Tatiana Astray says, “generally imply that the person you are speaking to is responsible for how you feel.” In the workplace, that may very well be the case, but it doesn’t hurt to couch your thoughts in terms of your personal experience rather than generalizing what may actually be a very limited issue. Furthermore, each of these “I statements” suggests that you’re willing to be told no, corrected, or redirected, and is therefore less likely to put whomever you’re speaking with on the defensive. Instead, you can approach the problem as team members with one shared goal.
Rely on Trusted Friends
Above all else, you should be utilizing the wisdom of the people you trust. Friends both at work and outside of it are the perfect sounding boards, especially when they offer a multitude of outlooks. Those outside of work can provide you with unbiased feedback, whereas coworkers can address your issue from the perspective of someone with first-hand experience. These friends can talk you down when you need it or affirm your point of view when you’re not entirely sure about your next steps. Most importantly, they’ll remind you that you’re not alone in your viewpoint and that someone out there has your back – which is exactly the right kind of positivity you need.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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