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Negativity in the Workplace - 8 November 2011

The most memorable scenes in blockbuster films tend to be the scariest.  In Poltergeist, a toy clown grabs a boy by the neck and pulls him underneath the bed.  In Jaws, a woman goes for a relaxing late-night swim at the beach, only to feel something tugging at her foot that turns out to be a shark. And no one can forget the chilling chant from A Nightmare On Elm Street: "One, two, Freddy's coming for you..."

So why do people love horror movies so much?  Why do we pay good money to get scared?  Psychology professors from various universities have come up with four main reasons.  And these same reasons explain why some employees in the workplace resort to negativity.  In their mind, work is a real-life horror movie.  They've got Dracula for a boss, Chucky for a colleague, and every day is Friday the 13th.  So, here are the four reasons.


First, when we watch horror movies, we don't really watch them for how we're going to feel during the scary scenes.  We watch them for how we're going to feel afterwards.  We seek to be scared only because what we really want to feel is relieved and cathartic.

A similar principle applies to negative employees.  They might feel uncomfortable when they're complaining, but they do it because of how they'll feel afterwards:  relieved and cathartic.  The alternative is to keep their anger trapped inside - and this makes them feel worse.  This means that one way to deal with negative employees is to give them regular opportunities to vent in a safe environment without judgement.

Second, the people most likely to watch scary movies are those who crave stimulation, which is why scary movies are so popular with younger audiences.  Adults, the theory says, have enough stimulation in their lives, and that's why many of them opt for calmer flicks.

Likewise, scientific research has proven that many negative people are negative because they play closer attention to their surroundings.  If they notice stuff more acutely, of course they're more likely to spot flaws and speak up about them.  Rather than shut down this form of stimulation, harness it.  Get their opinion on various matters, especially when you want to know the worst-case scenario of a new initiative. They spot things that others don't see.

Third, horror movies usually stick to a strict moral code, which is why they almost always have a happy ending.  The most immoral characters usually end up dead while the nicest stay alive.  This makes horror movies outrageously predictable.  But fans like it like that.

The same thing happens at work.  Negative people prefer environments that are predictable, which is why they're so resistant to change.  They panic when the status quo gets altered, especially if they sense (maybe accurately) that it's a change for the worse.  The solution is to pinpoint the cause of their resistance.  Chances are it'll be a fear that they're going to lose something as a result of the change.  Stop the loss and you'll probably stop the resistance.

And, fourth, horror movies tap into a human condition known as 'existential fear', which is a feeling of imminent doom.  By watching a scary flick, it verifies and validates that sense of inevitable catastrophe. 

This existential fear also exists within some employees.  They're negative just because they're negative in nature.  They relentlessly seek evidence that their boss is out to get them, that their colleagues are unhelpful, that their organisation is unfair.  It's very hard to change these people, so the best you can do is look out for how their behaviour adversely affects others.  Then deal with it as seriously as you'd deal with any other performance issue.

And, sometimes, though it's hard to admit, even well-intentioned managers stumble into bouts of negativity, which can be particularly contagious in a team.  As the homicidal character says in the movie Psycho: "We all go a little mad sometimes... Haven't you?"


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