Managing Your Career in a Negative Environment

By Mandy R. Simon

Many of the colleagues I’ve spoken to lately have alluded to having a similar problem in their work environments, regardless of organizational size or type: rampant negativity from co-workers. Workplace negativity is insidious and can feel downright inescapable. As the old-timey educational movie reels explain about tooth decay and drug addiction, negativity can seep into an organization unannounced and threaten to discourage even the most motivated and enthusiastic leaders. How does one manage their career in such a climate? Here are some tips I’ve found useful for staying buoyant in a pessimistic sea.

Maintain organizational awareness and self-awareness.
Buy into the vision and mission of your organization. Then ask yourself, where do you fit? Take a self-inventory of what is within and outside of your control. Where can you positively contribute and what skills do you have that can positively influence others (who may also be feeling the ill-effects of a negative environment)? Focus on the things you can change and improve. Go where you can do your best work. Pay attention to your co-workers. Encourage those who are working towards their own goals. Praise them on projects they initiate and effort they’re putting forth. They may not be getting recognition for their efforts, either. If you see someone doing a good job, acknowledge it. Encouragement isn’t reserved for managers and supervisors.

Find a friend.
Find a supportive friend with whom you can commiserate and allow yourself a certain amount of time to complain. Then, stop. Each of you is responsible to pull the other out of the negativity drain. Make a commitment to acknowledge when enough-is-enough and the conversation needs to turn around. Periodically remind each other about the organization’s mission. Get to know each other’s career aspirations so you can remain on the lookout for opportunities as they arise and seem to fit each other’s professional goals. Be a cheerleader for this person and vouch for their competencies and successes when you can.

Avoid negativity.
If you aren’t able to get others onto your positive-outlook bandwagon, it’s okay. Focus on what you can control and the people you can help. Try your best to ignore the negative chatter. If no one on staff will buy into the vision and positivity, sell it to your patrons. When your patrons are excited, other staff members will witness an energetic and exciting interaction between you and a patron. This kind of positive energy can be as contagious as negative energy. Spread it like wildfire.

Ask the right people the right questions.
Find out what changes you need to make great things happen. Jot them down. Take time to think about questions in a manner that is outside of your perspective. Write them down as they come to you and revisit them often. Consider starting a web-based document you can update periodically with questions and ideas. Start a plan of all the things you would implement if negative obstacles weren’t in the way. Dream big, but keep track of the dreams. Worry about the details later. Search for big ideas. When you get the opportunity to speak to someone who has more leverage and authority than you, be prepared with the questions and ideas you’ve compiled.

Market yourself.
Sign up for free webinars, chat with others who are attending. Take down names and numbers at conferences and connect with them on LinkedIn. Send a personal message after you’ve had a thoughtful professional conversation. Make people remember you. Talk about projects you would like to see happen and collaborate long-distance if need be. There are numerous online collaborative tools and resources available to assist you in achieving goals from afar. Make the time to connect with others outside of your organization. Keep a document called “Year to Date” and try to update it with committees you’ve been a part of, projects you’ve initiated or participated on and professional development/training you’ve received. If you’re constantly attempting to learn more, people around you will notice.

Learn from experience.
Whether it’s your experience or others’, you can benefit from it. That being said, it doesn’t mean that something that didn’t work before, couldn’t work now. Be thoughtful in the way you go about changing things. When possible and fruitful, alert others in a considerate way to let them know ahead of time that you’re planning a change. Be open to changing things back if they don’t work out. Sometimes approaching a change as an experiment is more palatable for negative people to swallow. (They may feel comforted knowing they can say “I told you so” if it doesn’t work out later.) And you’ll have the satisfaction of having implemented an idea with potential.

Manage yourself.
So your manager doesn’t really know how to manage you. Manage yourself. What makes you a good investment for any organization? Is it your personality or sense of humor? Do you really feel connected to the community and patrons you serve? Are you detail oriented and a multi-tasker? Do you set personal goals and deadlines for yourself? Is it your willingness to pitch in where help is needed, even if it’s “not your department”? Likewise, be realistic about your weaknesses and think about how you can improve them. If you have ideas on how to improve your setbacks, enlist someone else to help you do it. Most importantly, periodically update your manager with the things you are doing, so they aren’t surprised when they find out about the awesomeness you’re creating. If the manager doesn’t ask you about your projects and training, tell them anyway in a monthly email update. Now you both have an electronic record of what you’ve been working on.

Remain humble and open to learning from those who are different from you.
Whether it’s someone from a different type of organization, someone whose experience was gained in a different era, or someone who is fresh out of school with grandiose plans and seemingly impossible dreams: listen to them. Remain open-minded and respectful. When speaking to others about ideas and plans, respectfully mention their experience and knowledge. When you are introducing change, it can be misinterpreted as an insult to their processes and prior achievements.

Nothing is hopeless.
If you feel like you can’t change the negative outlooks, organizational culture or basic daily obstacles from within, concentrate on how you can reinforce your resume. Recognize that the hardest work you do may be the best work you do. It is not easy.