Published October 05, 2012
"I'm getting to the end of my patience," Dan,* the head of sales for a financial services firm, told me. "There is so much opportunity here — the business is growing, the work is interesting, and bonuses should be pretty good this year — but all I hear is complaining."
When he passed his employees in the hall and asked how it was going, they would respond with a critical comment about a client or they would grumble about the amount of work they were juggling.
"How can I turn around the negativity that pervades my team?" he asked me.
I asked him what he was doing now. "At first, I told them how much opportunity we had in front of us, and I reiterated our mission statement," he said. "I wanted to remind them what we're all working towards. Now though?" he threw his hands up in the air, "I'm just pissed. I want to shake them out of their slump."
Dan's response is completely natural and intuitive. Unfortunately, it's also completely ineffective.
Initially, he tried to counter the negativity with positivity. When that didn't work, he became negative himself. Both responses reaped the same outcome: More negativity.
Here's why: Countering someone's negativity with your positivity doesn't work because it's argumentative. People don't like to be emotionally contradicted and if you try to convince them that they shouldn't feel something, they'll only feel it more stubbornly. And if you're a leader trying to be positive, it comes off even worse because you'll appear out of touch and aloof to the reality that people are experiencing.
The other instinctive approach — confronting someone's negativity with your own negativity — doesn't work because it's additive. Your negative reaction to their negative reaction simply adds fuel to the fire. Negativity breeds negativity.
So how can you turn around negativity?
I discovered the answer when I made Dan's mistake with my wife Eleanor, when she was complaining about our kids fighting. At first I tried to convince her that all kids fight and ours weren't so bad. Then I became frustrated with her complaining and told her as much.
She got angry. Who wouldn't? But then she did something really helpful to me: She told me what she needed from me.
"I don't want to feel that I'm alone in this," she said, "I want to know you understand. I want you to tell me that we're in this together. And if you share my frustrations, I want to know that too."
In fact, I did share her frustrations, but I was trying not to be negative - which, of course, made the whole interaction more negative.
After my conversation with Eleanor, I had a surprising insight: You don't need to change your response. You just need to redirect it.
What Dan had done with his employees is respond negatively against them ("I want to shake them out of their slump") and positively against them ("I told them how much opportunity we had in front of us").
But a much more productive response is to respond negatively with others and positively with them.
Here's what I'm suggesting, translated into a three-step process for effectively turning around negative people:
1. Understand how they feel and validate it. This might be hard because it could feel like you're reinforcing their negative feelings. But you're not. You're not agreeing with them or justifying their negativity. You're simply showing them that you understand how they feel.
2. Find a place to agree with them. You don't have to agree with everything they've said, but, if you can, agree with some of what they're feeling. If you share some of their frustrations, let them know which.
During steps 1 and 2 you are responding negatively with others not against them. This relaxes and opens them. It helps them feel that they are not alone and you are not out of touch.
Instead of telling Eleanor she shouldn't be so negative about our children, I told her that I shared her frustrations about their fighting. That I was also lost about how to deal with it much of the time and that it made me feel helpless — all of which was true. It's not enough to simply say "I understand how you feel." For this to work, you need to be specific.
3. Find out what they are positive about and reinforce it. This doesn't mean trying to convince them to be positive. It means giving attention to whatever positive feelings they do show — and chances are they will have shown some because it's unusual to find people who are purely negative. If they are purely negative, then make sure they see you supporting others who have shown positivity. The idea is to give positive attention to positive feeling. And to offer concrete hope. It's concrete because it's based on actual positive feelings people already have, rather than harping on positive feelings you think they should have.
During step 3 you are responding positively with others, not against them. You are showing them that you support them. And you are showing them that they will be rewarded — with your support and attention — when they do and say things that are positive. During step 3 you are transforming the downward spiral into an upward one.
In my conversation with Eleanor, I asked her what did work to keep the kids playing nicely together. She talked about a previous morning when we directed their attention more proactively by doing an art project with them. It also worked well, she said, when she and I took each kid individually to do an errand or a project.
In less than five minutes, my conversation with Eleanor reversed its course from negative to positive.
These three steps are not easy to do because we have to fight our own highly emotional — and even reasonable — tendency to be negative about people who are complaining.
When I initially spoke with Dan, he was ready to fire some of his team. That would have, of course, simply exacerbated the negativity of those who stayed.
Instead, he started to listen and validate their negative feelings. What he found underneath the complaining was fear. The company had recently experienced layoffs and the survivors were still shaken. Were their jobs at risk? (Step 1.)
Dan couldn't say that they weren't — especially since he was ready to fire some of the complainers. But what he did do was listen and tell them that he shared some of their anxiety — not about being fired, but about feeling unsettled with so much to accomplish and fewer people to get the job done. In other words, he was negative with them. (Step 2.)
Then he highlighted some positive things he noticed on his team — people taking smart risks, working together on complex sales, and partnering successfully with clients — that were helping to grow the company and secure people's jobs. In other words, he was positive with them. (Step 3.)
Before, he never missed an opportunity to highlight — and criticize — a person's negativity. Now he didn't miss an opportunity to highlight — and praise — a person's positivity.
And it worked. Eventually the mood in the sales group turned and they worked together to bring in the largest client the company had ever won.
As for me? The truth is, it's often easier to teach this stuff than it is to do it. In the heat of the moment, I can still get frustrated with other people's frustrations. But following these three steps has helped tremendously. And having a partner who reminds me of them? That helps even more.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This story originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.