3 Ways to Nip Negativity Before It Spreads

 It was rather refreshing to hear from someone who seemed competent, for a change.

14 short words.  That’s all it took to rile me up.

I read the email again.

Damn.

Roy, a member of the Search Committee seeking a new Executive Director (ED) for a local Nonprofit, had just added his two cents to a committee-wide email thread.

I’d known that Roy was not a fan of the outgoing ED.   However, with his biting email, Roy had taken his negative feelings and thrown them, like an overripe tomato, at everyone on the Search Committee.

What a mess.

That “Damn” flew out of my mouth because I knew it’d be my job to clean up the mess.

I’m the chair of the Search Committee.

As discussed in last week’s post, emotions are contagious.  Negative emotions are particularly catchy.  I was concerned that cynical Roy would infect others on the team.

Cynicism. It’s a potent blend of sarcasm, distrust, pessimism, and doubt.

To become cynical is to employ a rather sophisticated coping strategy.

Underneath their hardened (and cool-seeming) exterior, cynics still care.  They just don’t want to get hurt any more.  They’d like things to be different, but they’re not willing to risk opening themselves up to future hurts. So they use their mask to cover up the simmering pool of upset and negativity that lives on the inside.

Cynicism offers an acceptable way to keep up “professional” appearances.  However, left alone, cynicism will breed and multiply like a cancer.  It will poison a whole culture with negativity.  Over time, that culture will slide down the slippery slope towards learned helplessness:  the belief that whatever they do won’t make a difference.

However, when caught early enough, there’s hope for the sick.  With skill and effort, you can cure the cynic of their disease.  You can help them to reverse their reservations and get back on board.

Here are three things leaders can do to nip negativity before it spreads:

  1. Notice It and Name It.

This step may be simple, but it’s not easy.

You already know that as a leader, everything you do and say sends a message.  That means everything you don’t do or don’t say also sends a message.

When you notice cynicism (like me noticing Roy and his email), and don’t say anything, you are condoning that behavior.  You’re saying “it’s OK to make comments like this around here”.  You enable the cancer to take root and multiply.

To recall this step, remember the TSA Phrase:  If  you see something, say something.

What makes this step not easy is that it takes courage to speak up in a challenging or uncomfortable environment.  Welcome to leadership.

2.  Create Psychological Air.

I’ll be honest.  My first impulse after reading Roy’s email was to ‘reply all’ to the whole committee and write a scathing response, in the hopes that I’d shame Roy into submission.While that would’ve felt good in the moment, in the long-term, it would have done more harm than good.

Instead, I realized that trying to ‘resolve’ this via email was a bad idea.  I picked up the phone and called Roy.  When he said hello, instead of telling him what a mess he’d made (what I wanted to do), I started by asking Roy if he could explain what he meant by his email.  I gave him time and space to vent-to create some psychological air.

Next, I reflected back to him that I understood his perspective.  Then (and only then) did I start to explain how Roy’s beliefs about the previous ED, shared in the manner that he shared them, were harming the team.

3. Live in Integrity.

The number one quality followers want in their leaders is honesty.  People are craving that you are trust-worthy: that is, literally, worthy of their trust.  Integrity is quite simple: Do What You Say You Will Do.  If  you don’t do what you say you’ll do, you feed the cynical belief that no one is to be trusted.

Being in integrity doesn’t mean being perfect.  It means being conscious: conscious of what you commit to following through on.  You’re human.  If you make a mistake and don’t follow through, then own it, apologize, and make it right.

These three steps are all within your sphere of influence.  As a leader, you have the power to choose the culture you (and  your people) work in.

FYI, from my conversation with Roy, I learned how deeply invested he was in the mission of our nonprofit.  My reaching out to him gave him space to address his concerns in a constructive way.   Afterwards, it was easy to build a bridge as to how we could best work together moving forward.

What others ways can you nip negativity?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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