Ask the Marketing Career Coach: How to Stay Positive in a Negative Work Environment

In this series, certified coach and mono Director of Talent Julie Vessel is answering your questions about finding, keeping, and loving your dream marketing job. A career strategist and architect, Julie has more than 20 years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies find their truth, position themselves, and get their story into the world. Read her advice on starting a new job for success, rethinking your annual review, searching for work-life balance, overcoming your inner critic, taking control of your own learning, advancing your career, learning to love being a manager, how to manage work when your personal life takes priority, and how to have a tough conversation with your manager.

Q: My company culture is very close and social. It’s great to be in a tight-knit environment, but lately there’s been a lot of negative talk and commiserating. I’m usually a positive person, but I’m finding myself becoming negative too. In these situations, how can you stay above the negativity?

A: Given marketing’s all-for-one and one-for-all team culture, it seems natural for employees to commiserate with one another. After the countless hours working, building and problem-solving together, teammates form a unique bond in their shared experience. So, it just makes sense to vent about that crazy client with impossible expectations or your boss who never seems to give you the chance you deserve, right?

While it might seem harmless to participate in venting sessions, research shows commiserating with your co-workers usually does more harm than good. Most people think venting about their problems relieves stress, but studies show dwelling on the negative actually drags you down physically and mentally.

Negativity is a choice. In any given situation, we choose how we will react. It’s easy to feel powerless in negative situations, but here are some ways to stay empowered when negativity strikes.

Don’t be a negativity magnet.

Here’s a saying I love: your state of mind and happiness will be determined by the 5 people you spend the most time with. So, bottom line: the people around you matter. They affect your way of thinking, your self-esteem, and your decisions.

If someone is bringing you down with their negativity, try to spend as little time with them as possible. If that’s impossible because you are on a team together, then you need to set limits. Try to stay focused on work, minimizing conversation that turns into negative discussions. Avoid open-ended questions like “How are you doing?” or “What’s going on?” as these questions open the door to storytelling and position you as a sympathetic audience for the negativity.

Importantly, seek out those who approach things more positively. Make time to connect regularly with people who share your positive and optimistic outlook. If they’re not on your team, grab coffee, lunch or get together after work. There is strength in numbers, and surrounding yourself with people who have a more positive attitude will also attract other positive people.

Form your own opinion.

Being part of a team can sometimes feel like you need to go with the group consensus. But ultimately, you are your own person. What are the facts? What’s your opinion? Instead of just agreeing with the loudest opinion or groupthink, give yourself the chance to do your own homework and form your own position. Do you agree that leadership made the wrong decision? Do you believe that information was intentionally withheld? It’s important to form your own, informed decision and point of view.

And when you come to your own conclusion, it’s likely that you’ll disagree with other’s opinions. This is hard (deep breath here), but be brave and tell your coworkers what you think. You’re not trying to spark an argument or change their opinions. Rather, tell your coworker you care about their concern and about their happiness at work, but you disagree with their assessment of the situation. In doing so, you are showing them where you stand and also sending them a signal that you’re not going to fuel their negativity fire on this particular topic.

Look for the good.

Gratitude and negativity are opposing forces. It’s impossible to be grateful and negative at the same time. I dare you to try it. If you feel yourself going down the emotional negative black hole, try to reframe your mindset.

Look at the positives of every project and the things that are working well, instead of what isn’t. As for coworkers who try to draw you into lengthy gripe sessions, point out the positive and make it your mission to talk more about what’s going well, rather than what’s going wrong.

Focus on the solution, not the problem.

One of my coaching teachers said “you can argue with the past, but you will never win.” What’s done is done. Complaining about the same thing over and over again keeps us stuck in the past. So why do people dwell on things? It’s simple. It’s easier to complain than to truly deal with a problem or issue at work.

It’s great to provide a supportive ear to listen, but refuse to rehash the same problems over and over. Instead, be the catalyst to encourage the shift from commiseration to problem-solving. Work together and bond over the solution, instead of the problem. Be a leader and ask questions like “What do you think we should do about this?”

Don’t take on other people’s feelings.

It’s important to be a supportive teammate. And when negativity strikes, it’s hard to listen without also taking on the negativity yourself. But it’s important that you create a barrier between you and them. Their feelings may or not be your feelings. Their experience may or not be your experience.

It’s important to distinguish between empathizing with a situation and sympathizing with a situation. To empathize is to understand what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself. To sympathize is to acknowledge another person's emotional hardships and provide comfort and assurance.

In situations where we don’t want to take on the emotional baggage of a negative person, it’s important to stay in a sympathetic state. Listen until you are certain that they feel heard out and listened to. Ask questions. Clarify their statements. Make sure you have actively listened.

But you don’t have to identify or attach yourself to their situation. Instead of saying “I know how you feel” or “I feel the same way,” use language like “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time” or “I’m sorry you feel that you’ve been wronged” to acknowledge their feelings while making it clear whose whose feelings they are — theirs, not yours. In doing this, you can be supportive without identifying or taking on those feelings yourself.

When you’ve tried everything…

If you’ve tried all the above and you still feel yourself being swept up in a sea of negativity, then it’s time to take a step back. If company negativity is a pervasive problem, it might be time to think about whether it’s time to move on to a company culture that shares your values of optimism and open-mindedness. We often switch careers because of opportunity or advancement, but personal happiness is as fair a reason as any to reconsider your options. It’s easy to accept a negative environment as the new normal after you’ve lived in it for a while. But, check out another company or two to open your eyes to the range of cultures.

We’ve all gotten swept up in the swirl of negative situations or people. But remember, negativity is a choice, and it’s something you can personally manage and stand up to.

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Antenna is a leader in delivering top marketing professionals to corporations of all sizes for project-based consulting, interim leadership assignments, and contract staffing engagements. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Antenna draws from its private community of experienced marketing talent to help clients balance the flexibility and expertise modern marketing organizations demand.