May 2011 - Ending the Toxic Two-Step of Negativity
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May 2011 - Ending the Toxic Two-Step of Negativity
by Tom Terez
The moment I met Nancy (not her real name, for reasons that will soon become
obvious), I had her pegged as Ms. Positive. Who else would wear a sweater
embroidered with a bright-yellow sun and words like joy, dance and
happiness? She literally wore her optimism ó
or so it seemed.
We engaged in pleasant chit-chat, then her friend (weíll call him Steve)
arrived. The three of us sat down for lunch and began talking, but by the
time the food arrived, I was rendered invisible as Nancy and her colleague began
an impassioned discourse on everything that was going wrong at work.
I could barely keep up with their back-and-forth of negativity:
- The process wonít work. Never has and never will.
- Itís all because of Bob. And donít forget Jennifer.
- The whole department is a problem.
- Things donít change here. Never will.
As they fed each other new lines of negativity, Nancy and Steve couldnít
get enough. That sweater with its embroidered sun and happy words now
looked like the ultimate contradiction. It would have been funny if I didnít
feel so bad for these two people who were stuck in a sinkhole of negativity.
A month later on the other side of the country, I participated in a
roundtable dialogue that was meant to focus on motivation. Two of the
people were manager friends who worked at the same organization. They
werenít wearing eye-catching sweaters, but they held our ears captive with a
nonstop critique of all the terrible things that were happening back at work.
Just like Nancy and Steve, they seemed to be stoking each otherís
negativity. Whenever someone at the table offered a different perspective,
theyíd team up and bat it down ó then
theyíd go back to their endless loop of doom and gloom.
On the flight home, I could hear a conversation in the row behind
me. Two colleagues had just wrapped up a big meeting that didnít
go very well and they clearly needed to vent. But they kept venting for a
full hour. It sounded like a game of one-upsmanship, with each of them
trying to best the other with a bigger example of workplace dysfunction.
Iíve heard it so often that Iíve coined a term: the toxic two-step.
Itís always done in pairs, it gets people exercised, it tires them out and it
gets them nowhere.
If youíve been doing the toxic two-step yourself, you know what Iím
talking about. You get brief relief by talking about your workplace
struggles (real or imagined). Your indignation gets validation through
your two-step partner. But...you know deep down that youíre recycling
the same old conversation. And youíll be doing that for...how many more
If you donít indulge in dysfunctional one-on-ones, you might have
co-workers who do. You know from experience how they can drag down the
collective mood of the workplace.
Here are eight suggestions:
1. HEAR WHAT YOUíRE SAYING:
All too often, we say the same things day after day as if reading from a
well-worn script. Try to become more aware of your comments. If youíre
always dwelling on the negative, who are you helping?
2. PRESS FOR SPECIFICS:
If someone keeps saying that a process has been fouled up for years, ask
them to pinpoint exactly where and why. Theyíll either come up with an
answer or theyíll offer to find an answer or theyíll evade. If they do
the latter, walk away.
3. ENCOURAGE SOLUTIONS:
Instead of simply agreeing with a toxic two-stepper, change the focus of
their thinking by asking, "What can you (or we) do about it?" If
they respond with a string of generalities, ask them to be specific.
4. INVITE THEM IN:
Say what you will about those non-stop nay-sayers, at least they care enough
to complain. Some have years of experience and you might be able to
channel it in a positive way. Look for ways to involve them in
well-organized efforts aimed at analyzing problems, finding solutions and
developing action ideas.
5. ADD A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE:
Sometimes the situation calls for spontaneous teaching. For example,
if someone is complaining about those "lazy kid employees who just donít
have our work ethic," you might be able to reframe their thinking with a
few facts about generational differences.
6. REFOCUS ON THE PRESENT:
Chronically negative people like to live in the past. Theyíll
revisit how their bad boss from five years ago did such-and-such to so-and-so or
how that team from who-knows-when failed miserably because of no management
support. The stories are told so many times that they become generalized
and end up shaping peopleís perception of the current workplace culture.
Whenever you hear these kinds of long-ago references, fast-forward the
conversation to the present. Get people talking in specifics about whatís
7. VIEW PEOPLE AS CAPABLE:
Some people, especially managers, pair up and talk incessantly about the
deficiencies of staff. They end up sounding like disappointed parents
commenting on their wayward children. If youíre one of these
"parents," beware. The parent-child model is a sure way to
perpetuate inequality and division in the workplace and itís exhausting to
boot. Try viewing yourself as a coach and make the teamís results
8. SHOWCASE THE POSITIVE:
Every workplace is filled with accomplishments, success stories, great
practices and meaningful results. Make a point of talking about these
positives. What we talk about often becomes our future, so donít take it
Tom Terez (TomTerez.com)
is an international consultant and frequent speaker on organizational
and personal excellence (InnerBest.com).
Copyright 2008 Tom Terez. All rights reserved. Use by permission of the
- Transforming Your Dragons: Turning Personality Fear Patterns into
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0942663063. Also, available at the Power
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and No Regrets. Marlene Chism. Wiley, 2011. ISBN:
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Jon Gordon. Wiley, 2008. ISBN-13:
- Yes Lives in the Land of NO: A Tale of Triumph Over Negativity. B.J.
Gallagher, Steve Ventura, Todd Graveline. Berrett-Koehler Publishers,
- Illuminate: Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. David
Corbin. Wiley, 2009. ISBN-13:
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Patrick
Lencioni. Jossey-Bass, 2002. ISBN-13:
- Income Without a Job: Living Well Without a Paycheck. Michael
Jay Anthony, Barbara J. Taylor. Lulu.com,
978-0-557-00377-8. Website: www.income-without-a-job.com.
Tap into your own creativity and use your full potential. Learn
how to see opportunities that others miss.
Related newsletter articles:
1999 - Dealing with Personality Dragons
1999 - Slaying the Personality Dragons
July 2006 - Giving
and Receiving Feedback
September 2003 -
Dealing with Difficult People (Working with Personality Dragons)
2011 - Remembering What's Important
October 2000 -
Moving Beyond the Obstacles
May 1998 -
Expanding Your Personal Power
June 1997 - Basic
The Personality Game
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