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spike bullet May 2011 - Ending the Toxic Two-Step of Negativity

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color bullet May 2011 - Ending the Toxic Two-Step of Negativity

by Tom Terez

The moment I met Nancy (not her real name, for reasons that will soon become obvious), I had her pegged as Ms. Positive.  Who else would wear a sweater embroidered with a bright-yellow sun and words like joy, dance and happiness?  She literally wore her optimism ó or so it seemed.

We engaged in pleasant chit-chat, then her friend (weíll call him Steve) arrived.  The three of us sat down for lunch and began talking, but by the time the food arrived, I was rendered invisible as Nancy and her colleague began an impassioned discourse on everything that was going wrong at work.

I could barely keep up with their back-and-forth of negativity: 

  • The process wonít work. Never has and never will. 
  • Itís all because of Bob.  And donít forget Jennifer. 
  • The whole department is a problem. 
  • Things donít change here.  Never will.

As they fed each other new lines of negativity, Nancy and Steve couldnít get enough.  That sweater with its embroidered sun and happy words now looked like the ultimate contradiction.  It would have been funny if I didnít feel so bad for these two people who were stuck in a sinkhole of negativity.

A month later on the other side of the country, I participated in a roundtable dialogue that was meant to focus on motivation.  Two of the people were manager friends who worked at the same organization.  They werenít wearing eye-catching sweaters, but they held our ears captive with a nonstop critique of all the terrible things that were happening back at work.

Just like Nancy and Steve, they seemed to be stoking each otherís negativity.  Whenever someone at the table offered a different perspective, theyíd team up and bat it down ó then theyíd go back to their endless loop of doom and gloom.

On the flight home, I could hear a conversation in the row behind me.   Two colleagues had just wrapped up a big meeting that didnít go very well and they clearly needed to vent.  But they kept venting for a full hour.  It sounded like a game of one-upsmanship, with each of them trying to best the other with a bigger example of workplace dysfunction.

Iíve heard it so often that Iíve coined a term: the toxic two-step.  Itís always done in pairs, it gets people exercised, it tires them out and it gets them nowhere.

If youíve been doing the toxic two-step yourself, you know what Iím talking about.  You get brief relief by talking about your workplace struggles (real or imagined).  Your indignation gets validation through your two-step partner. know deep down that youíre recycling the same old conversation.  And youíll be doing that many more years?

If you donít indulge in dysfunctional one-on-ones, you might have co-workers who do.  You know from experience how they can drag down the collective mood of the workplace.

color bullet What can you do?  

Here are eight suggestions:

All too often, we say the same things day after day as if reading from a well-worn script.  Try to become more aware of your comments.  If youíre always dwelling on the negative, who are you helping?

If someone keeps saying that a process has been fouled up for years, ask them to pinpoint exactly where and why.  Theyíll either come up with an answer or theyíll offer to find an answer or theyíll evade.  If they do the latter, walk away.

Instead of simply agreeing with a toxic two-stepper, change the focus of their thinking by asking, "What can you (or we) do about it?"  If they respond with a string of generalities, ask them to be specific.

Say what you will about those non-stop nay-sayers, at least they care enough to complain.  Some have years of experience and you might be able to channel it in a positive way.  Look for ways to involve them in well-organized efforts aimed at analyzing problems, finding solutions and developing action ideas.

Sometimes the situation calls for spontaneous teaching.  For example, if someone is complaining about those "lazy kid employees who just donít have our work ethic," you might be able to reframe their thinking with a few facts about generational differences.

Chronically negative people like to live in the past.  Theyíll revisit how their bad boss from five years ago did such-and-such to so-and-so or how that team from who-knows-when failed miserably because of no management support.  The stories are told so many times that they become generalized and end up shaping peopleís perception of the current workplace culture.  Whenever you hear these kinds of long-ago references, fast-forward the conversation to the present.  Get people talking in specifics about whatís happening now.

Some people, especially managers, pair up and talk incessantly about the deficiencies of staff.  They end up sounding like disappointed parents commenting on their wayward children.  If youíre one of these "parents," beware.  The parent-child model is a sure way to perpetuate inequality and division in the workplace and itís exhausting to boot.  Try viewing yourself as a coach and make the teamís results everyoneís responsibility.

Every workplace is filled with accomplishments, success stories, great practices and meaningful results.  Make a point of talking about these positives.  What we talk about often becomes our future, so donít take it lightly.

color bulletABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tom Terez ( is an international consultant and frequent speaker on organizational performance ( and personal excellence (  Copyright 2008 Tom Terez. All rights reserved.  Use by permission of the author. 

  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • Transforming Your Dragons: Turning Personality Fear Patterns into Personal Power.  Jose Stevens. Bear & Co; (July 1994) ISBN: 1879181177.  
  • 7 Obstacles (e-book).   Josť Stevens, 2010.  Power Path Seminars.  Available at the Power Path Seminars website. This is one segment of a new series of e-books in the PersonEssence System for Understanding People series.
  • The Personality Puzzle: Solving the Mystery of Who You Are.  Jose Stevens, JP Van Hulle. Power Path Seminars; (December 1990) ASIN: 0942663063.  Also, available at the Power Path Seminars website. 
  • Managing Workplace Negativity.  Gary S. Topchik.  Amacom, 2001.  ISBN-13: 978-0814405826
  • Stop Workplace Drama: Train Your Team to have No Complaints, No Excuses and No Regrets.  Marlene Chism.  Wiley, 2011.  ISBN: 978-0470885734
  • The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work.  Jon Gordon.  Wiley, 2008.  ISBN-13: 978-0470279496
  • Yes Lives in the Land of NO: A Tale of Triumph Over Negativity.  B.J. Gallagher, Steve Ventura, Todd Graveline.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.  ISBN-13: 978-1576753392
  • Illuminate: Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. David Corbin.  Wiley, 2009.  ISBN-13: 978-0470455876
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.  Patrick Lencioni.  Jossey-Bass, 2002.  ISBN-13: 978-0787960759
  • Income Without a Job: Living Well Without a Paycheck.  Michael Jay Anthony, Barbara J. Taylor., 2008  ISBN-13: 978-0-557-00377-8.  Website:  Tap into your own creativity and use  your full potential.  Learn how to see opportunities that others miss.   

world wide web - articles  Articles

Related newsletter articles:
   June 1999 - Dealing with Personality Dragons
   July 1999 - Slaying the Personality Dragons
   July 2006 - Giving and Receiving Feedback
   September 2003 - Dealing with Difficult People (Working with Personality Dragons)
   April 2011 - Remembering What's Important
   October 2000 - Moving Beyond the Obstacles
   May 1998 - Expanding Your Personal Power
   June 1997 - Basic Human Needs
   The Personality Game

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