How to stay positive with negative people

Even in icy conditions, the right attitude can go a long way.
Even in icy conditions, the right attitude can go a long way.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re interested in how to thrive at work—how to be your most productive, effective, energized self in all of your professional endeavors.

And yet, it’s statistically likely that you’re working with at least a few people who are pretty disaffected from day to day. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace study suggests that only 13% of employees worldwide feel actively engaged by their work. Most of the rest feel rather apathetic, but a significant number (24%) say they feel “actively disengaged” by their work. That may include your boss, by the way, since the numbers look just as bad for the category that Gallup calls “professional workers and managers/executives/officials.”

Given these grim numbers, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the comments I most often hear when speaking to audiences is: “All this advice on how to be at your best—I get it. But realistically, what can you do when you’re surrounded by difficult people?” The glib answer, of course, is: “you should quit!” But most people can’t simply walk out of their jobs, at least not immediately. Moreover, it’s not easy to make thoughtful, balanced career decisions when you’re feeling desperate. So while it’s a good idea to work on an exit strategy if you’re in a toxic place, it’s also worth doing what you can to improve your daily experience right now—if nothing else, to help you think more clearly about your next move.

Decide what you want to learn from the situation

Human beings are wired to find it fundamentally satisfying and energizing to learn new things, even small things. Researchers have found that simply getting answers to questions is enough to activate the brain’s reward system (something TV game show producers guessed a long time ago).

And the truth is that even in the worst of situations, there is something to learn. You might decide: “I’m going to learn how not to completely lose it when dealing with the office psychopath,” and experiment with different techniques for staying calm under pressure until you become a master at it. Working with obstructive colleagues? You could decide to bone up on a range of influencing techniques. It’s a good way of making you feel that your time isn’t wasted. And if your goal becomes learning new things, even repeated failure becomes useful—because (paraphrasing Thomas Edison), you’ll simply be learning what doesn’t work. Just remember to take notes as you go along, to cement your learning and help you keep track of interesting stories you can tell in your next job interview.

You have more influence than you might imagine

Your behavior is surprisingly contagious. Psychologists have found that merely being near someone in a good mood can be enough to lift people’s motivation within five minutes, while being near someone grumpy can do the opposite. In fact, research has shown that just looking at photos of people smiling or grimacing is enough to provoke measurable feelings of happiness or sadness. The upshot: get annoyed with your situation at work, and it’s likely to leak into the behavior of those around you. Find something to feel good about, and there’s at least a chance they’ll mirror some of that back at you.

If it seems hard to imagine simply radiating joy at your colleagues, you could try the “random acts of kindness” strategy. For example, you could pay an unexpected compliment or pick up a drink for a colleague. Apart from anything else, evidence suggests that this will give you a weirdly reliable personal boost. Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania professor who founded the field of positive psychology, is on record as saying that “doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”

Recent research suggests that this kind of altruism really does spread. In a study conducted at Coca-Cola, employees who had benefited from some kind of unexpectedly nice behavior were then three times more likely to do something nice for someone else. So you might not be able to create your dream workplace with a few warm gestures, but evidence suggests you’re going to make some kind of dent in the despair.

Get curious. They’re probably not evil

Did you know that only 1% of the population is thought to be psychopathic? That number might still seem uncomfortably high to you, but it does mean that your annoying co-worker is probably not a psychopath.

The issue is that everyone’s brain is constantly scanning for potential threats to defend them against. If it finds one, it launches a “freeze, fight, or flight” response, which in the workplace might show up as clueless, aggressive, or avoidant comments. A “threat” doesn’t have to be big, either. It can be any tiny thing that challenges a person’s sense of self-worth or social standing, like a task that makes them feel out of their depth or being left out of a conversation. And when someone’s brain goes on the defensive, neuroscientists have shown that there’s less activity in their prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for careful thought and self-control. In other words, even decent people become dumber and less lovely when they feel mildly threatened.

So most bad behavior in the workplace is the result of someone’s brain being on the defensive, not because its owner is actually evil. I’ve found that simply knowing this can be helpful. And there’s a lot to be gained by getting curious about what might have pushed their buttons. What’s the human fear that’s been triggered here? Are they concerned about not looking competent or not being in control? Are they worried about not being relevant or respected?

You don’t have to become their psychotherapist. But it’s oddly powerful to make factual observations, without interpretation or generalization, and invite them to talk (“I noticed you frowned when I mentioned X. Can I ask what’s on your mind?”) The simple fact of paying attention can be enough to reduce their defensiveness—after all, you’re boosting their sense of self-worth by showing interest—and you might just manage to uncover some humanity.

Failing that, of course, you can simply invent a silly story to explain their behavior. Perhaps the thought that, say, their cat vomits on them every morning, and that’s what’s making them cranky, will put a smile on your face. And given the existence of emotional contagion, you never know – they might just smile back.

Caroline Webb is the CEO of Sevenshift, a firm that shows people how to use insights from behavioral science to improve their working life, and the author of How To Have A Good Day.