We've all been stuck in work environments that suck the life out of us. In her book Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, recalls asking her three-year-old niece Allison while driving home from the hospital how it felt to have a new baby brother. "It feels a lot like vomit," the three-year-old replied from her booster seat. That's pretty much how it feels to spend day after day in an unhealthy workplace.
Whether it's office politics, hostile relationships, or lack of trust, a negative work environment can lead to disengagement, lower retention rates, decreased productivity, and sheer misery all around. Everyone suffers when the atmosphere at work is negative--employees, leadership, and ultimately the company and its bottom line.
Research from The Gallup Organization has found that disenchanted workers who tear down what their engaged colleagues are trying to build up cost the American economy up to $350 billion a year. Curt Coffman, coauthor of Gallup's book First, Break All the Rules, dubs these actively disengaged employees "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 beliefs," Coffman said in a Gallup interview.
While it's not always possible to avoid occasional negative workplace dynamics, you can implement strategies that help create a culture that feeds on hope and helpfulness, rather than dysfunction and disillusionment:
Strive for healthy conflict. A first step toward eliminating negativity is to fuel passion through healthy conflict and heated debate. While the words "conflict" and "debate" may bring to mind negative interactions, it's important to understand that there's a big difference between healthy, passionate conflict and negativity. The difference is that healthy conflict is focused on increasing your understanding of someone else's position, learning from each other, and finding new solutions. In other words, healthy conflict is about enquiring first and advocating second.
While there may be opposing views on a particular issue, as long as both sides are actively engaged in doing what's in the company's best interest by acquiring greater insight into the other person's perspective (or any other perspectives in the room), it creates an environment that facilitates progress and change. Healthy conflict fueled by passion helps teams find the right answer, bringing everyone's perspectives into the mix. The discussion may feel contentious at times, because often it is. But if that passion for a particular position is channeled toward seeking collective understanding, and ultimately what's best for the company, the outcomes will be positive, not negative.
Make positivity a core value. To minimize or eliminate negativity, you need something equally powerful that can combat it. You need to weave principles that encourage positivity into the very fabric of your organization, so that everyone in the company will be committed to operating out of hope rather than fear. At Pluralsight, we were fortunate to institutionalize our belief in optimism into our set of three core values. We are truth seekers, entrepreneurs, and eternal optimists.
What this means is that everyone we bring on board values optimism and the positive energy it brings. When presented with a problem, while a pessimist might spend a lot of time and energy grumbling about how it spells doom for the company, our crew of optimists spends that same energy seeking potential solutions. This isn't about blind optimism that ignores facts or problems. It's about bringing up challenges in a healthy, positive way that doesn't point fingers but instead collaborates to find solutions and move the company forward.
Hire eternal optimists. Since making eternal optimism one of our core values, our hiring process has become much easier and more straightforward--because we now know exactly what we're looking for. In building our team, we hire people who represent the positive qualities that we value as a company. We look for those who can engage in healthy conflict yet remain optimistic, believing that they can solve problems. We look for candidates who show a strong belief in the good of other people and their ability to succeed. While negative people assume others don't know what they're doing, positive people assume the opposite.
If negativity is a problem in your organization, work on hiring different types of people who are upbeat at heart. Making eternal optimism a core value helps to guide your hiring decisions and identify potential red flags, which means you're more likely to find the right kind of kindred spirits to promote your mission. To leave less to chance, consider incorporating personality assessments into your hiring process, such as Myers-Briggs or Hogan Assessments. While a "cave dweller" type may be able to bluff their way through an interview, it's difficult to hide a negative personality behind these profiling tests.
Provide complete transparency. When people feel out of the loop and don't know what's going on behind the scenes at your company, it can lead to dysfunction and disengagement. You can counteract this as a leader by providing complete, radical transparency throughout the company, which will diffuse early seeds of negativity. Instead of letting situations fester and imaginations run wild, you can provide communication channels to foster better understanding of key corporate issues.
At Pluralsight, we recently began holding Town Hall meetings every Friday for consistent companywide updates and plenty of open Q&A, where anyone in the company can ask any question of any member of the leadership team. This provides a high level of clarity about how the company is progressing, what we're doing, and why we're doing it. This process not only calms fears, but it also counteracts negativity, frustration, and assuming the worst. In addition to these weekly companywide meetings, we also encourage consistent one-on-ones between leadership and team members, to promote transparency in working relationships and the ability to share feelings about issues.
Empower individuals to innovate. Another effective negativity-buster is to encourage and empower individuals to innovate and effect change at the company. This is all about leaders learning to let go, and providing autonomy. If you build employee empowerment into your culture, you can counteract negativity by putting the tools in people's hands to change the things that bother them the most.
We encourage innovation at Pluralsight in many ways, but one of the most dramatic is coming up at the end of the year when we'll institute our first "hack day." We'll ask everyone in the company to drop everything else that they're doing that day, and over a 24-hour period, focus on making some improvement to the company that can make a difference, no matter what it is. Empowering people to come up with positive solutions through group work sessions like this provides a real antidote to negative energy.
Don't make work so serious all the time. Another way to quash would-be haters from your teams is to build opportunities for fun into the workplace. Whether it's catering weekly lunches where people can socialize on the company's dime, holding holiday parties during the workday that go all out (think pumpkin-carving contests and Thanksgiving potlucks), or monthly happy hours that begin at 4pm, integrating some opportunities for play within work can foster healthy relationships and build trust among colleagues.
Promoting events like these helps to create a positive, exciting atmosphere in which everyone can engage. If you need some fresh ideas for good times, check out what they're doing in Silicon Valley.
Commit to cutting bad apples loose. When you think about what's at the heart of negativity, it's really about people who don't offer solutions. They see the glass half empty, focusing only on the problems, not how to work through and solve them. They're like grenade throwers, dropping bombs around them and blowing things up, leaving others to rebuild in their wake. They're poisonous to any environment, which is why it's so important to have a strategy to deal with them.
While you can do your best to create and maintain a positive corporate culture, you can never get it 100 percent right all the time. You can strive to improve your success rate by taking each of the six steps above, but it's tough to assemble the perfect group of optimists. So in the end, the best strategy we've found to deal with a "bad apple" is to extract a commitment--from within each team and from leadership--that everyone will do what needs to be done to preserve a positive atmosphere for the group.
If a leader does hire someone who poisons that effort by bringing negativity into the culture, then the peers on the team have to keep their commitment to each other--and to the company--by letting the leader know about it. The leader must then hold that person accountable, and if change is not forthcoming, be willing to let go of that person to preserve the culture for everyone else. We've done that many times over the years, and we've never regretted it. That's because it's only by closing the door on negativity that you can make room for positive efforts to flourish unimpeded.