Ask The Coach — Overcome Workplace Negativity

Published on February 13, 2015

Love Your Job - Love Your LifeDear Coach: I joined a large group practice after graduation from dental school and after two years of working with associates who complain constantly about the owner of the practice, all I think about now is how to get out. I have reached a point where I don’t want to go to work and, when I am at work, my ability to work has taken a nose dive. I hate to walk away from my investment, patients, and staff, but I don’t know what else to do. I have no idea how to handle this situation. S.G.

S.G., you may find it interesting to learn that there is a lot of research on workplace negativity, as more than half of U.S. workers say they are unhappy in their jobs, according to Conference Board data. And, as you are experiencing in your practice, studies have found that being exposed to constant complaining damages productivity. Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, says exposure to nonstop negativity can disrupt learning, memory, attention, and judgment, all especially important qualities in a physician. The brain, he says, can only handle so many stimuli at once before it begins losing the ability to concentrate or remember, especially if that steady stream of negativity sparks distressing emotions. It’s important to understand that people criticize, grumble, and whine for a variety of reasons. The most benign people in this category are those who use complaints, put-downs, and negative humor as pathways to create intimacy with others in their environment — what we call unaware, uninformed, and unsophisticated communication. Many people talk bad about others to shift the focus from their own mistakes, screw-ups, and failures — an effective strategy to keep everyone off-balance and off one’s back, at least for awhile. Others are so in need of attention, approval, and appreciation that they put other people down in order to make themselves look good. The most damaging type of complainer is one who seeks power and uses a constant stream of negativity about the boss (or some other target) to gain influence and attract a coalition of supporters to their side. So what can you do short of leaving the practice? We recommend dealing with this situation with a clear request for positive, objective, and descriptive communication during every encounter and exchange of information. At Straine, we have zero tolerance for negative, subjective, and judgmental communication; we address violations to our communication policy immediately. We realize that, as an employee of the practice, your position on the org chart is not as weighty as the owner’s, yet your influence can be powerful and might be the catalyst for the change for which you and probably others are looking.

Although it may sound like we’re trivializing the seriousness of this epidemic of negativity, we believe every obnoxious behavior, at its very foundation, is a cry for help. When dealing with any disconnect on goals, attitudes, behavior, or emotion, we always recommend approaching the situation with love, which at its most basic means to “delight in” and “approve.” An important element of love is commitment, and psychologist Erich Fromm maintained in his book, “The Art Of Loving,” that love is not merely a feeling but is also actions — and that, in fact, the “feeling” of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time. Fromm held that love is ultimately not a feeling at all, but rather is a commitment to, an adherence to, loving actions toward another, one’s self, or many others, over a sustained duration. Philosophical underpinnings of love exist in Confucianism, which emphasizes actions and duty. A core concept to Confucianism is Ren — benevolent love — which focuses on duty, action, and attitude in a relationship rather than love itself. Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 4th century BC believed people in principle should care for all people equally. Mohism emphasizes that rather than adopting different attitudes towards different people, love should be unconditional and offered to everyone without regard to reciprocation. In Buddhism, love can be capable of being either selfish or selfless, the latter being a key element towards enlightenment. We urge approaching your colleagues with “love” as the first step in rectifying this situation, applying these four actions as needed:

Although Shakespeare wrote more than 400 years ago in “The Merchant Of Venice” that “love is blind,” we remind you that actions of love rather than feelings of love produce enlightened environments. The traditional Chinese character for love (“Ai”) consists of a heart inside of “accept,” which can be interpreted as a hand offering one’s heart to another hand. And, as we teach at Straine, leaders always touch a heart before they ask for a hand.

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