Move beyond staying positive

I recently spoke with a man struggling to stay positive within his workplace.

Several months earlier he had committed to changing his attitude. He had spent too many years complaining with coworkers and leaving the office at the end of the day emotionally exhausted. He didn’t want to be part of the toxicity that permeates his work group anymore. But he was worried.

His efforts to shift to positive thinking seemed doomed within the prevailing negative culture. He thought if he just stayed positive, he could influence others. Instead, they started complaining that he seemed aloof, like he thought he was better than them.

I commended him on his personal commitment to focus on what he could best control—his own thoughts. And then we explored the limitations of this strategy.

He was learning to be more mindful about his thoughts and emotions. He could notice his early warns signs of negativity such as mounting frustration, anxiety, and despair. He had taught himself to notice the negative stories that triggered these emotions. And instead of reacting to these drama stories, he would get curious about what he didn’t know and remind himself to assume others’ good intent.

While his instinct to start within is useful, it’s not enough. To create a more positive workplace, he must be more than be a positive island in and ocean of toxicity.

For example, he stopped gossiping because he realized those conversations stirred up more problems and left him feeling bad about people. But he hadn’t shared his insights with his coworkers. Triangulation behaviors continued to eat away at trust and respect and fuel their negativity.

Instead, he needs to use his insights about his thoughts and emotions to inform direct conversations with his coworkers. For example, if he is feeling uncomfortable about interactions within the group, chances are good that others are too.  By sharing his concerns with respect, he could influence his group to notice their common need to create a workplace that feels safe to talk about difficult issues.

We talked about using the Waterline model with his group to identify forces that influence their negative culture. As his group develops their culture-sight (the ability to notice the structures, dynamics, behaviors and attitudes that manifest as their culture) they would be able to separate the people from the problems, and address the problems with confidence and humility. They could invite each other to create and share defensiveness action plans, discuss their group aspirations and the behaviors that would help them create a healthy, productive workplace, and learn to give each other on-going feedback to sustain their progress.

He left our conversation acknowledging that he—and the group—had work do. It was good to see him excited at the possibility of what they could create together.

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