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The science of negativity in the workplace

Negativity in the workplace

I’ve seen my fair share of negativity in the workplace.

Don’t get me wrong — worked at some good, collaborative places too. (Although the negative ones outnumber those.) Cracking or “hacking” the job deal is kinda like real estate. Mostly it’s about location and fit. And school district? Maybe that went too far.

There are a couple of things that need to be noted upfront here. One is about the sheer prevalence of negative thoughts for a human as they go through a day. It’s quite a bit. So even if your company has a “Chief Fun Officer” and all that bullshit, people will still be depressed and negative as they move throughout the day. I’m not saying they will be every second, but they will be. That’s unavoidable.

The second thing is how we think on work. We want it to be logical; that’s why we cloak/drape everything in process. But because it’s still made up of people, work is inherently emotional. Just think about the basic relationship between a manager and an employee. That’s two human beings. One is allowed to tell the other “This thing you did sucks.” The second person (the employee) can’t say back “No, you suck” without losing their income. You think that’s not emotional? It’s emotional.

What does all this have to do with negativity in the workplace? Onward.

Negativity in the workplace: The research

New book out called The Leading Brainwhich is basically about using/hacking neuroscience to achieve “peak performance.” Sounds like something guys in Silicon Valley would be really into, but all of us should try and learn from this. The author of the book did a podcast with Wharton, and this part stands out:

Regulating your negative emotions is critical to peak performance. When you try to inhibit negative emotions that you feel — anger, frustration, disappointment — in the workplace, the rational and emotional systems in you compete with each other. When your brain is busy trying to tamp down negative feelings, you become too distracted to perform well. “Two systems in your brain are competing,” Hagemann said. “That leads to not being focused on anything anymore.” To regain cognitive control, recognize and ‘label’ how you feel, he said.

OK, let’s unpack this one for a second.

So negativity in the workplace is really negative, yea?

Would appear that way. When something negative happens at work, typically the main recourse you have is to suppress it. What are you going to do? Throw a fit? Hit someone? Maybe passive aggressively go to HR? (Actually that one might be fairly common.)

Sidebar: if you want to understand why HR doesn’t have a “seat at the table” and mostly runs in circles, consider negativity in the workplace. They’re always putting out fires because people have no other channels.

OK, so back to this. You have to inhibit negative emotions like anger (common at work) or frustration (more common). Now your rational system and your emotional system are competing. Ruh roh. And now… (drum roll please) …

You are too distracted to perform well.




 

So basically, all this negativity in the workplace floating around = tanked productivity = nothing really gets done as best it could.

Nice little circle there, eh?

Elements of control

A lot of work is about what you can control. (For many people, at least.) The problem is, control is a zero-sum game — if you control X-situation, that means another person over here can’t feel that control. Now they’re angry or frustrated. As we just saw above, they are less productive. So what are they going to do? Try and grab control of another deliverable. That means Person 3 now doesn’t have control of that deliverable, gets angry, and is less productive. So what does he do? I think you see where this is going.

This is the same way we think about business competition: even though we’re hyper-connected and could collaborate and iterate more, we’d rather beat the shit out of each other for 0.0002 market share because, well, it’s fun! And we’ve always done it that way! And we gotta control our market share, right?

Like I said up top, some companies are truly great places to work. But at many, negativity in the workplace is a constant loop/circle that just keeps tanking productivity along with it.

Ted Bauer

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