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Four Signs That You’re The Office Debbie Downer

Could you be chronically negative and not know it? Here’s how to figure out if you are unintentionally bringing down the whole office.

Four Signs That You’re The Office Debbie Downer
[Photo: Mike Wilson]

It’s easy to recognize negative people. They’re the ones who find the bad in any situation and never seem to be happy. Talking with them makes you feel heavy or tired, and you find yourself doing what you can to avoid them.

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But what if you’re the negative one? We all have bad days and need to vent, but could you be chronically negative and not know it?

In order to identify negative tendencies in yourself, you need to understand how those negative tendencies develop in the first place, says AJ Marsden, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College. “Our negative thoughts about ourselves develop over time due to perceived bad experiences,” she says. “When we think about our past experiences through a negative lens, we have a tendency to strengthen those negative thoughts.”

If you had a difficult interaction with a team member and later focus heavily on how it could have gone better, for example, you are engaging in strong self-criticism, says Marsden. “Over time, the more often you criticize yourself and dwell on negative thoughts, you end up literally strengthening those memories and making the connections between those neurons stronger,” she says. “The stronger the neural connection, the more likely we are to use those connections again in the future.”

It’s important to overcome negativity, especially if you’re a leader. “Negativity drains energy and sabotages talented teams,” says Jon Gordon, author of The Power of Positive Leadership: How and Why Positive Leaders Transform Teams and Organizations and Change the World.

It also affects your health, says Marsden. “Our mind influences our body, and when we are always negative and stressed out, it affects our body,” she says. “People with negative personalities are more likely to develop colds, get the flu, develop heart disease, and develop cancer than those who are more positive.”

To break out of the pessimistic cycle, you need to recognize negative thoughts and actions and change them. Here are four signs that you might be a negative leader:

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1. You Focus On What’s Wrong

It can be discouraging to work hard all day for a manager who only comes in to point out what’s not working well. Gordon suggests keeping track of your interactions to determine how many are positive and how many are negative.

“You want to strive for a three to one ratio—three positive interactions for every negative one,” he says.

Always acknowledge what was done right and what’s working before you address what isn’t. Positive communicators encourage and inspire others. “With so many people telling us we can’t succeed, we need to hear people telling us we can,” says Gordon.

2. You Assign Blame

A negative leader’s first reaction to an issue is finding the responsible person to attack and blame. “Positive people focus on the problem not the person,” says Gordon. “They say, ‘Let’s solve this together,’ and work with their team rather than attacking them.”

But this process doesn’t mean not holding people accountable, says Gordon. Once a solution is found, identify why an underperforming employee is having trouble and coach them to solve the problem.

“You have to be demanding without being demeaning,” he says. “If your team knows you love them, they will allow you to challenge and push them.”

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3. You Can’t Let Go Of The Past

Everyone has made mistakes, but focusing on past missteps in yourself and others creates a negative mind-set.

“Anyone pursuing anything worthwhile will fail and fail often,” says Gordon. “You can dwell on the past or look forward to making the next opportunity great. You can see life as a game of failure or opportunity. It’s all in how you see it.”

Recognize when you’re dwelling on negative thoughts, says Marsden. “Do not chastise yourself for negative thoughts—that, in and of itself, is a negative thought. Instead, recognize the negative thought as a negative thought and replace it with a good one.”

For example, if you think, “I can’t believe I made all those mistakes in that report. I’m such an idiot,” recognize that it’s a negative thought and most likely not true. “Positive thoughts should center on what you did correctly and how you will make sure you don’t make similar mistakes in the future,” says Marsden. “Remind yourself that everything will be OK. Recognize, don’t criticize, and correct. Try to generate at least four positive thoughts for every one negative one.”

4. You Motivate With Fear

Negative leaders can create success in the short-term by scaring their team to perform, but eventually fear doesn’t work and negative is not sustaining, says Gordon. “It’s draining,” he says. “Negative leadership will sabotage the team in the long run.”

Gordon likes to use the example of Silicon Valley during the Great Recession. “The whole country was talking about negativity and the economy and lost jobs,” he says, “Here Silicon Valley was asking, ‘What recession?’ They were too busy creating the future, believing in it, dreaming about it, and rallying their people to create it.”

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If you’re not sure you’re a negative leader, go to the source, suggests Gordon. Ask your team, “What it’s like to be led by me?” “Do you feel energized working with me?” “Do I encourage you?” “Do you feel like I believe in you?” “Do you believe you accomplish more with me as your leader?” “Are you afraid of failure?”

“A negative leader leads by fear and people are afraid to fail,” says Gordon. “This is bad because they can’t take chances to succeed. Instead of creating something incredible, they play it safe.”