Is being negative such a bad thing?


Last week I met someone who I think I can safely say was one of the most negative people I have ever met.

Eeyore  I spent much of a day with him during one of our Musikscool events.  He was 15: polite, well dressed, articulate, and with an outlook on life which shocked me so much, I did not know quite how to take it.  He made Eeyore look like the world’s greatest optimist.

He was working in a team of Marketing people, who were trying to develop ideas to raise £5,000 for charity in just one day.  I first really noticed him when someone came up with the idea of going to the local supermarket and raising money from the local shoppers.

“What do people think of that idea?”, I said.

“Terrible”, he replied.

“Why’s that?”, I asked.

“It’ll never work.”

I stuck with it, determined to see whether I could “unconvince” this young man, to whom failure of this idea seemed inevitable.

“Why won’t it work?”, I asked.

“They won’t let us do it.”

“How do you know?”

(I’m aware at this point that 8 sets of eyes are on me, wondering no doubt who is going to win this arm wrestle.)

“They just won’t.”

Aware of the time, and recognising I wasn’t going to win this one, I let it go and sent the volunteers on their way.  They came back with a sizeable contribution towards the target.

This pattern went on all day:  use of the word “terrible” at the first sign of an idea, supported by the belief that “it won’t work.”

I was fascinated, and despite being under intense pressure to keep the ball rolling with my group of easily distracted teenagers, made time to try and understand him better.

He told me he always sees the reason for not doing things, because so often new ideas don’t work.  Far better to see the downside, as you are then unlikely to be disappointed.

He reminded me of the worst boss I ever had in this respect.  You could call him the ultimate Pragmatist.  The first day I joined his team, he told me this:

“Treat all your restaurant managers as lazy, lying, thieving bastards, and you will never be surprised and will occasionally be pleasantly surprised.”

I signally failed to execute on this command, being a natural born optimist, and found it the most stressful job of my life.  Thankfully a year later I was able to contrive a reasonably dignified exit.

My young friend taught me several things last week.  Firstly, how energy sapping I find it when I meet someone who doesn’t have a similarly optimistic outlook to mine.  Secondly, how useless I am at dealing with negativity (I found myself walking away from him at one point when he lobbed another doom bomb into the room just as I was about to brief a theatre full of 500 schoolchildren.)

But he did get me thinking.  He is I guess the ultimate pragmatist – the Black Hat wearer, who we are told we need to have in every team in order to ensure that the loud can-do optimists like me don’t charge ahead and do things we shouldn’t be doing.  We need people like him if we’re not going to charge up blind alleys or make a hash of things because we haven’t thought it through. 

If only these were available on the NHS

If only these were available on the NHS

Upon reflection, he was displaying an admirable amount of honesty – something we could do with more of at work.  Instead of pretending we agree to things, and showing support when in fact we secretly think the boss’ idea is doomed to fail, it would be so much better if  we could take what I call the “metaphorical honesty tablet”.  Say what we really think, and say it straight.  How refreshing to hear it around the meeting room table.

“That, Bob, is a terrible idea.  When did you last hear language like that?

I have concluded that I can only handle this resource in very small doses.  I need people to critique my ideas, but I also need them to tell me how good they are.

The other thing I learnt was how embedded a view of the world can become at such an early age.  If a belief system like that can be formed by the age of 15, no wonder we find it such a struggle to unlearn when we are adults.

I can feel my energy draining away right now, writing this.  I think we should finish with something more uplifting.  Here’s a song written during the event by the kids, and recorded that afternoon.  If this young lady doesn’t step straight into Adele’s shoes, I’ll eat my hat.  Give me one minute of this and I’ll take a day of “terrible”, any time.  Enjoy.

 

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About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at www.hownot2.com
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9 Responses to Is being negative such a bad thing?

  1. Mikey says:

    If ever I have been negative in my contributions to a group task ( and yes, there have been one or two instances) I have generally been on the receiving end from the facilitator of some immediate, or post task feedback, politely requesting that I do not rain on anyone else’s parade…! I think this young chap could probably benefit from some robust Browno feedback that will stand him in good stead for future business and social interactions.
    Finally, sue the surveyor if the roof leak is bad! (please tell me you got a full structural survey)

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    • “Some Browno feedback”. Yes, I did that. Told him it was demotivating both me and the others in the team, and suggested a different approach. It washed over him like water off a duck’s back, unfortunately. I’m ashamed to say that I then took my feedback to the next level, by walking away. Pathetic!

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  2. All very interesting – I also appreciate honesty and pragmatism and if people don’t truly believe in an idea then it probably won’t work anyway. However my response would always be ‘what’s your alternative proposal / what would you do differently?!’ If you don’t have one then you must try out other’s ideas – and whilst if you don’t go there you will never by disappointed, you will also never be excited, challenged or develop as a person. Knowing you Mike, I can see how this would have been a very challenging day! – you are one of the most creative, optimistic people I have ever worked with but, I guess, we do occasionally need people to pull us back down from that ‘blue sky’!

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  3. Dave Loewy says:

    Hi Mike. Another great, thought-provoking post. And how sad for that lad to have such a negative view of the world. Of course, as a Coach and NLP-er, I’m also wondering how I would “fix” him – which is very revealing in itself.

    Like you, I believe that honesty is a rare and essential part of creativity, when it is done sensitively, as in “That’s interesting, and how could we…”. Otherwise, as you say, the will to live and create evaporates incredibly fast.

    Thanks also for sharing that uplifting track. What talent. I’d buy her album right now. Have you signed her up yet, Mr Cowell?

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  4. Carolann says:

    Great post, Michael! I agree that there needs to be a certain level of honesty on a team, yet I find it so annoying when someone (sometimes its me) jumps right out with “that won’t work!”, almost like the response is a reflex. I try very hard not to be that person.

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    • Thanks Carolann. I think we do learn over the years how to suppress the “that won’t work” response, as it is socially frowned on at work. I can think of teams I’ve worked in (for instance a team of 12 trainers) where the “that won’t work” gene was non existent 🙂 That also is not such a good thing. Maybe, as with so many things, it’s a question of finding the right balance.

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  5. Hi Michael, another thought provoking blog. For me the real danger of negativity that can happen to me, even typing this as a positive person is that once you get yourself in a negative mindset, it tends to take over, it becomes all pervading. It is all too easy to allow the negativity perhaps even subconsiously to prevent any further openmindedness and to allow it to stifle any creative ideas. For example if you have had a bad experience it is sooo easy to just expect the same bad experience to occur again without ever looking at yourself and what things you could do to change the result. In short you create self fulfilling prophecies, you expect the worst so the worst you get…..

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