5 Ways to Be a Positive Force in a Negative Workplace

9 Ways To Be A Positive Force In A Negative Workplace

My German Father-in-law would call trying to fix this negative workplace, Furzen gegen den Donner, farting against thunder. I’ve got to admit, the description I got on the other end of the phone was pretty bad: little to no recognition, development, or teamwork combined with long hours, limited resources, lots of finger-pointing, and the uncertainty of a new acquisition and consolidation.

When my caller tried to get a hold of a list of the company values, no one seemed to know where to find them. The veterans knew they existed, somewhere they were as opaque as the vacation policy no one took seriously.

Leaders were fleeing this negative workplace every day. And yet this LGL member was staying, and pulling people together to improve the scene (which had nothing to do with his day job). Why?

“I used to feel like I needed to get out of here, but now I’m so excited to be part of the solution. it’s fulfilling to see progress. I know I may lose my job in a year or so, but for now, this feels like important work.”

Important work indeed. The world needs people who dive deeper to change a negative workforce. It’s far easier to run away. Here are some tips that can help. Please add yours to the list.

How To Be A Positive Force In A Negative Workplace

  1. Ask Why They Work – In this negative environment, this may seem obvious: “for the paycheck, stupid”. But take it a step further. Do they work to support their sick mom? To pay back student loans? To save for their children’s education? Because they enjoy helping customers? Because? Reconnecting to the purpose of work can help make the smaller annoyances less frustrating.
  2. Call It What It Is – When you see negative thinking or actions, talk to the person privately to call it out – particularly if other leaders are involved. When negative attitudes and talk are all around, it’s tempting to ignore it. Raise the bar and change the conversation.
  3. Rise Above The Drama – Refuse to get sucked into the rumors and gossip. Respond to your team’s concerns with transparency and candor. Be the one people know they can trust for a straight answer.
  4. Find Kindred Spirits – The truth is not everyone is negative, although it can feel that way at times. Look around and find other folks trying to change the scene for the better. There is strength in numbers.
  5. Create A Cultural Oasis – It’s easy to feel overwhelmed trying to fix the overall culture. Start with your own team and do what you can to make it feel better to come to work. See: BYOO: Build Your Own Cultural Oasis.
  6. Find Reasons To Celebrate – With all the negativity, it’s easy to overlook the good. Go out of your way to recognize and celebrate small wins. Substitute weak phrases like no problem with more enthusiastic recognition power words.
  7. See Barriers As A Challenge – Encourage your team to embrace the problems they are seeing as challenges to learn and grow from. Recapping learning along the way helps them feel a sense of positive momentum even during the most challenging times.
  8. Laugh More – I had one colleague who would respond to the ridiculous political nonsense by reminding us it’s all comedy. Stepping back and recognizing how ridiculous some behavior is creating a healthy distance from which to respond more appropriately.
  9. Hold Deeper Developmental Conversations – In periods of uncertainty, people yearn for a sense of control and connection. Take your developmental conversations to the next level. Ask your team and your peers about their hopes and dreams, what motivates them and what scares them. Show up as a real human being caring about other real human beings.

Do you want more ideas for being a positive force in a negative culture? Check out our book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results– Without Losing Your Soul.

Posted in Communication, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Karin- even though I promised to only comment when I have something of substantial value, I find myself driven to comment.
    Negative mouths exceed positive ones. If we have 5 complainers and 2 performers, the resulting force isn’t 5-2 = 3. It is 5^2 – 2^2
    = 25 – 4
    = 21

    That is there a multiplier force in operation. This shows how important this post is.

    Accidentally, this analysis is the subject of my presentation of yesterday. Honestly, this is the first time I request the readers’ comments on this presentation.


    • Ali, That’s a terrific addition (or should I say multiplication). I love it when you share your presentations with our community. Namaste.

  2. Similar to your “laugh more” I would add that there is value in small talk. Water cooler talk. Lunch. Spending time together with no agenda. Quite often, the people with the negative outlook don’t see value in their environment and one way this can change is by having someone close by who allows them to be genuine, transparent. Of course, this would mean separating that person from others who are negative! At least for a short while.

  3. Good listicle for the 29% that like their jobs..

    The elephant in the room? Stats show 71% of the workforce are disengaged from their jobs. Mentally checked out.

    I work with Gen Y’rs who want clarity on who they want to become. Baby Boomers who are making a great living but their profession is not lighting them up.

    The masses are starving for a new direction.

    • Steve, True…. sometimes it’s time to go…I know you’re great at helping people figure out to where. It’s good to be sure you’re running to something, and not away.

  4. Hi Karin, I particularly like the Oasis description. We can help create a sea of calm in a toxic atmosphere, which can serve as a tonic to keep our sanity. That being said, I also agree with your grandfather’s description. One person alone, even a senior one, has very little chance to change a company culture.
    Paradoxically, I also find that it helps if one cares less about the company. When people care too much, they take everything personally, and can lose sleep lamenting that they can’t seem to get things to change. Caring less in this circumstance brings a professional detachment, leading to less angst about how things are, and more focus on what needs to be done.

    I must complement your grandfather on an apt description!

  5. I think Steve’s point is a good one.

    Maybe that’s a good metric to work with, but what to do to make those numbers improve?

    I’d start by giving the gift of caring. Specifically, something tangible, such as training (knowledge and skills) in how to manage emotional reactions. (they are all emotional, right?)

    I’ve done this, and if done well, feedback from staff has been that this training has been a gift. Doesn’t have to be complex, but it does have to be fundamental.

    Pre and post training data collected showed that the perceptions of staff changed, while the business situation did not. Its just that staff were not able to perceive as much negativity or poor leadership afterwards.

  6. Negative attitudes can be very contagious and can quickly transform a workplace from functional to dysfunctional. Not playing into the complainers and nay-sayers can be helpful. Just saying they are who they are and working around them.

    Another thing I have done and seen is offering a lot of shout-outs and praise to empower others to recognize their contributions. When people feel valued there is often more of a sense of optimism and positivity. Feeling “we are all in this together” yet we deeply appreciate one another can go a far way.

    Terrific post, Karin!

    • Terri, Excellent points. Not playing into the complainers… perfect… giving them attention makes it worse. I’m also all for informal recognition and shout outs. So vital.

  7. I love all your points, Karin.

    I especially think humor is important because it changes the way your brain processes information by releasing different chemicals. Laughing forces us out of our “emotional” state of mind that is full of negativity.

    Great post!

  8. Karin,

    Great points to act upon. Another to include is the mirror test. Ensure you are exhibiting the positive force you want others to exhibit. In other words, ensure you are leading by example. Many team members get certain cues from their managers and we need to ensure we are leading with the right cues.



    • Jon, So agree. It’s really important for leaders to very carefully watch their words and actions. Even facial expressions and posture… can rub off and send negative messages. Thank you.

  9. I would add what is my own M.O.

    Do everything you do, in the most kind way. Even the tough stuff.

    It serves me well.

  10. Great list. I would add, ask what is working and how can we do more like that. Discussing positives can help people see and want to be a part of what can be. Even with negatives sometimes asking what will this process look like when works can generate more ideas than what is wrong with this process. I think it can help people see a path to a better future.

    • Bonnie, Great add… Focusing on what IS working can really help. Often the positives get buried under all that negativity and need a little help surfacing. Perfect.

    • Mike, EXCELLENT post! Thanks so much for sharing. I overlooked the staying still aspects. I hope you will come back and continue to expand the conversation.

  11. Wow. Great list with such helpful advice. My perspective is different for I am currently mentoring a child who seems to have a negative perspective on the world. I feel this list will help me encourage her to see things in a new light and hopefully change her negative outlook into a positive one.

    • Carly, It’s timely you should say that. My husband and I (and our children, and my parents) are deeply invested in a very important relationship we have with a large family who came from the Sudan, who have grown to be our family over the last decade. As the children have grown, it’s been a struggle to see the children who have taken their scarcity experience and interpreted it one way…. and the others who have the opposite view.

      These children have so much love and support, they have so many opportunities, but it’s sometimes hard to see past the “what if it’s not real” feelings.

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